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Above_Lumbarda_Korcula_Croatia_©Adam_Batterbee copyA vineyard tour of Korčula

The Croatian island of Korčula is home to a unique wine … perfect for sipping after visiting its scenic villages and beaches

The Guardian

Published: 31 July 2017

At 10.30am, I thought it might have been a bit early for a wine tasting. But the eight people sitting in the cool stone tasting room at Bire Winery were already having a merry time of it. I had just cycled uphill from the seafront at Lumbarda, one of Korčula’s main wine villages, and had to stop myself from gulping down the proffered glass of chilled rosé. Fresh, pale and dry, it was the best I’d tasted outside of Provence.

Cycling_to_Bire_Winery_Lumbarda_Korcula_Croatia_©Adam_Batterbee copyIt was an excellent prelude to the wine I had come to Croatia to taste: dry white grk, made from a grape grown nowhere else in the world. To add to its oddity, it’s female only, so it needs another grape to pollinate it. Step forward plavac mali, the full-bodied red that’s found around Dalmatia and also goes into Bire’s moreish rosé.

They’ve been making wine in Lumbarda for 2,000 years, and the wineries I was visiting were small concerns that have been in the family for anything from 200 to 600 years. From Bire I cycled past olive groves to Zure Winery, where Ivan and Marko Batistić have developed a sparkling grk, the first on the island, along with a bold red (Rebellion) that blends plavac mali with four other varieties.

He also does a grk version of the Croatian dessert wine prošek, that’s a bit like Hungarian tokaj. All of these exquisite wines went beautifully with plates of octopus, local cheeses and smoked ham made froTatinja_beach2_Lumbarda_Korcula_Croatia_©Adam_Batterbee copym the family’s pigs – a tantalising taste of what is offered in Zure’s vine-covered restaurant.

Grk thrives in the sandy soil of Lumbarda. And it’s sand, along with wine, that draws many to Lumbarda, as it has that rare thing on Croatia’s beautiful but rocky coast: sandy beaches. Two of them. Three if you count the narrow strip in the village opposite my hotel, the exceptionally friendly Hotel Borik. The hotel’s flower-filled terrace and its swimming pool were serene spots from which to take in views of the harbour. It was also within a short distance of the beaches and vineyards, whether you were on two wheels or two feet.

Bilin Žal and Pržina beaches top and tail one of the island’s narrowest points, with a sea of vineyards dividing the two. Personally, I preferred the pebbly Tatinja beach, where I could float in clear waters while paddleboarders and kayakers passed me on their way to the little islands of Vrnik and Gubavac.

“I never go into the sea,” Stjepan Cebalo told me. His Popić winery is one of the three biggest in Lumbarda, along with Bire and Zure (the village has seven). We sat on his covered terrace gazing at the sea, hisPupnatska_Luka_beach_Korcula_Croatia_©Adam_Batterbee copy vineyards, terracotta-roofed houses, the white spire of Sveti Rok church and the stark mountains and vineyards of the Pelješac peninsula beyond. The sea breeze was delicious on this 30C day. Like the Bire and Zure winery owners, Stjepan has sons who are happy to carry on the family business, bucking the trend of the rural desertification of other parts of Croatia. I was already wondering what on earth would make people want to leave this place.

Swapping my bike for a scooter, I nipped over to Korčula Town, 6.5km away. Its fishbone-shaped medieval old town was busy with day-trippers and people from small cruise ships and yachts. Many were swept along the Marco Polo trail that sprang up around the belief that the Venetian explorer was born in Korčula. I gave the Marco Polo Museum a miss and instead wandered through alleys of pale stone houses, stopping for a sublime lunch of seafood pasta on the waterfront terrace of the Lešič Dimitri Palace hotel.

With motorised wheels, I headed into Korčula’s mountainous and thickly forested interior. As I got closer to the wine-growing villages of Čara and Smokvica, the road swooped into valleys covered in vineyards of pošip (a more floral white wine than grk) and plavac mali. Korčula’s heavily indented southern coast shelters gorgeous little pebbly beaches, including a secluded one at Žitna and a larger, deeper bay at Pupnatska Luka.

Back in Lumbarda, the village was gearing up for its Friday fish festival, held weekly in summer. FisherLumbarda_bonfire_Korcula_Croatia_©Adam_Batterbee copymen and women set up grills in the square opposite the little village beach, and we all queued up for freshly grilled snapper, sardines and squid.

Someone lit a bonfire on the beach, and small children, teenagers and quite a few adults joined in a tradition of jumping over the fire. It was a glorious, joyful spectacle. Drinking plavac mali and eating seafood on the beach, I blessed Korčula’s intoxicating mix of water and wine.

 The trip was provided by Prestige Holidays, which has seven nights’ B&B at the Hotel Borik from £455pp, including flights to Dubrovnik and transfers. Scooter hire at Korkyra from €25 a day. For further information, visit croatia.hr

 


Walking_in_Zlatibor_Serbia_©Adam_Batterbee copyWalking in Serbia’s year-round playground

The alpine-like Zlatibor region in south-west Serbia offers forested peaks, waterfalls, pretty villages – and a few more eccentric attractions

The Guardian

Published: 15 July 2017

The horses seemed tame enough. One, a chestnut, ambled towards me as I trooped up the path to Čuker’s 1,359-metre peak. Not accustomed to meeting horses on Serbian mountains, I carried on before the chestnut could get a sniff of my lunch. I’d been saving my burek, a cheese filo pie found all over the Balkans, as my reward after walking uphill for two hours.

My more immediate reward was a view of mossy green mountains that turned blue in the distance. The air was clean and mild, hinting at rain to come. It felt like the Brecon Beacons, but I was in the Zlatibor mountains, western Serbia’s summer and winter playground.

Pedalos_on_Zlatibor_lake_Serbia_©Adam_Batterbee copySerbia’s king Aleksandar Obrenović put Zlatibor on the map in 1893, when he discovered the health benefits of the area’s exceptionally clean air. People from the nearby city of Užice built summer homes here, creating what is now one of Serbia’s most popular tourist areas. It’s rather like a mini version of the Alps, complete with chalet-style steep-roofed houses in Zlatibor village, adventure parks, a lake full of pedalos and a bijou ski resort, Tornik. In summer, Tornik’s chairlift reopens to transport mountain bikers and hikers to its peak, which I could clearly see from the top of Čuker.

And, like in most alpine resorts, there were things to do in weather that made hiking or biking unappealing. As the rain came down, I drove 25 minutes to Stopića cave, a wondrous limestone world of illuminated waterfalls and travertine terraces. Stalactites formed a jagged vaulted ceiling as awe-inspiring as any cathedral.

Sirogojno_Staro_Selo_Serbia_©Adam_Batterbee copyFrom here it was less than a 10-minute drive to Serbia’s open-air museum, Staro Selo (Old Village) at Sirogojno. It’s a fascinating collection of 19th- and early 20th-century farm buildings. The wooden houses have steep roofs covered in wooden tiles, and rural life is engagingly reconstructed, with family homes, grain stores, livestock pens and the all-important shed for making rakija (brandy). I could visualise my Serbian grandparents sitting by the fire, the smoke wafting up to the open loft to cure the hanging meats. A few lodges have been equipped with such fripperies as bathrooms and heating, and stays cost about £18 a night B&B.

As I took the twisting road south to where Gostilje waterfall plunges 20 metres from a limestone cliff, the mountains grew taller and greener. I followed a path downstream through the forest to more cascades and the Katusnica river. For 150 dinars (£1), you get a lot of waterfall bang for your buck, with picnic spots, a play area and an outdoor pool.

Close-up_of_Sargan_Eight_Serbia_©Adam_Batterbee copyDespite the weather, I was enjoying Zlatibor’s quirks and eccentricities. Two of them are barely 2km apart on the aptly named Mokra Gora (Wet Mountain). The Šargan Eight train is a fantastic feat of engineering, a 1925 narrow-gauge railway that crosses the mountains in a figure-of-eight loop.

From the trundling vintage train, I spotted Drvengrad (mecavnik.info) on a hillside. This “wooden town” was built by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica for his 2004 film Life Is a Miracle, and is still there. It’s like a whimsical version of Sirogojno, with similar wooden-roofed houses that can be rented, as well as cafes, shops and a hotel. It’s the setting for Kusturica’s annual January film festival, and streets are named after Federico Fellini, Joe Strummer and Nikola Tesla.

True wildness was just out of reach in neighbouring Tara national park, whose magnificent mountainous landscapes would have to wait for another, drier time. The sun did hang around long enough for a last walk above Zlatibor village, where the views nearly matched those of my first hike. No horses this time, just a grizzled shepherd and his flock – and a lunch of spit-roast lamb at Restoran Mačkat. For a final flavour of Zlatibor, it was authentic as you could get.

 The trip was provided by the Serbian Tourist Board (serbia.travel) and Zlatibor TourismWizzair flies to Belgrade from Luton from £24 one-way. Car hire with Zim Rent-a-Car costs from €30 a day


Llama_in_Valloire_©Adam_BatterbeeWalking with llamas – not your average ski holiday

A unique attraction is drawing visitors to the French mountain resort of Valloire, says Mary Novakovich

The Independent

Published: 3 November 2016

This article won the award for the Best Sport and Activity Feature in the French Travel Media Awards 2017

Tchupi fluttered his long eyelashes at me and muttered something incomprehensible. Then he made a break for it to chomp on a hedge alongside his chum, Tio. Evidently these llamas had a one-track mind.

I was in Valloire, the only French ski resort where you can take these adorable creatures for a gentle snowshoe stroll through woods, along the river Valloirette, in the shadow of the peaks that loom over this corner of the Maurienne Valley.

Tchupi_llama_and_Mary_Valloire_©Adam_BatterbeeOstensibly it’s meant to appeal to children – the two tiny French sisters in our party were squealing with glee – but the grown-ups were equally won over by these docile, sweetly mischievous animals.

Eventually their chatty owner, Gilles, brought out a picnic of herbal tea and tartines with jam and cream. I also saw why he had been carrying a tripod all this time: he set up a telescope, trained it on the mountainside and stared intently.

“There!” he said. “Two chamois and a deer. Make that two deer.” We all took turns to look, the little girls as excited as the adults to see these elusive animals. It was like no other snowshoe walk I’d ever done. It was also, as I was discovering, typical of Valloire: quirky, intimate, full of pleasant surprises – and very French.

Valloire_skiing_©Adam_BatterbeeThe skiing isn’t to be sniffed at either. Between Valloire and neighbouring Valmeinier there are 150km of pistes across the Galibier-Thabor ski area – with 70 per cent above 2,000m. There’s also a snowpark, a freestyle zone and some tough off-piste areas. So any daredevils in the family – and it was mostly family groups here – can have a good hair-raising whizz round, while the rest of us could enjoy some excellent and varied terrain at a more relaxed pace.

I was seeing Valloire through a beginner’s eyes, as my husband had decided to ditch his snowboard and take up skiing for the first time since a long-ago school trip. Seemingly endless, high-altitude green runs gave beginners plenty of space to practise on – unlike some resorts where there’s a small novice area and then you’re chucked straight on to more challenging slopes. Here the move from green to blue – and then red – was a smooth transition made easy by our cheerful ESF (French Ski School) guide, Mathilde.

The month before had been dry, but snow arrived in the nick of time for our trip. We could explore both of Valloire’s sectors, the high-altitude Crey du Quart (with a magnificent view from 2,534m) and the more sheltered Sétaz, with runs winding through the woods. One by one, the pistes were reopening – notably the chairlift at Moulin Benjamin across the street from our flat at the Chalets du Galibier, saving us the trouble of taking the free ski bus to the centre.

Valloire_Friday_market_saucisson_©Adam_BatterbeeDuring strolls through the attractive village – mostly traditional Savoyard buildings marred by only a couple of modernist blots – we were drawn inexorably towards the numerous food shops. We were no match for their mouthwatering displays of charcuterie, Beaufort, tomme de Savoie and other local cheeses. The Friday market – one of the best I’d seen in the region – made me glad I was taking the train as I stocked up on cheese, saucisson and génépi, that golden herbal liqueur that really brings back the taste of the Alps.

About the only thing that was missing was the collection of café terraces usually found by ski lifts, but what Valloire was lacking in the 4pm après-ski action it made up for in late-night fun. Two live music bars by the outdoor skating rink, Le Moussequif and Le Mast’Rock, were the places to pitch up in after 11pm, with the nearby Slalom nightclub kicking off after 1am. The bowling alley and its bar were busy, and Le Centre bar was a friendly spot for those us with less staying power. I couldn’t fault the restaurants either, with affordable mountains of cheesy dishes to plough through at Le Plancher des Vaches, Au Resto and La Pizza.

Leaving the skis behind one day, we joined our snowshoe guide, Thierry, for an 8km trek through the forests near the 1,566m Col du Télégraphe. Thickly falling snow and clouds obliterated the view of the mountains, and an observation deck mocked us with what we were missing. But the woods were silent and serene, disturbed only by our tracks in the deep snow. After a few hours we reached a hut, where another group huddled around the wood-burner eating a cheese fondue. As we devoureValloire_snowshoeing©Adam_Batterbeed our picnic, two of Thierry’s friends turned up on their snowmobiles, bearing emergency supplies of hot chocolate and génépi – an unexpected and very welcome act of kindness.

Back in the village, we visited Brasserie Galibier, which, until recently, was the highest microbrewery in France. Its co-owner, former pro snowboarder Brice Le Guennec, wasn’t bothered about losing that distinction. “We don’t care. We just brew the best beer in the Alps,” he told me. It wasn’t an idle boast. Only spring water is used, and no preservatives. Clean-tasting, refreshing, unpretentious – and as cold as Valloire is warm.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mary Novakovich travelled with Voyages-sncf (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com), which offers direct Eurostar trains from London to Lyon and connections to St-Michel-de-Maurienne. Bus transfers (mobisavoie.fr) to Valloire cost €12.30.

Staying there

The writer was a guest of Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170; peakretreats.co.uk), which offers a week at the Chalets du Galibier from £269pp, including Eurotunnel crossing.

Skiing there

Six-day lift passes cost €190; ski and boot hire from Intersport Galibier (intersport-rent.fr) costs from €13 a day.

Walking with llamas (estancot.net) costs €22 for adults, €14 for children aged seven to 17 and free for children under seven.

Half-day snowshoe treks cost €23 (00 33 6 99 96 41 87).

More information

valloire.net


IMG_0504

Paxos: A green and pleasant land

Paxos is a little Greek island full of charm, says Mary Novakovich

Travel Weekly

Published: 18 March 2016

Paxos is hardly undiscovered. Mention it to Grecophiles and they will sigh with pleasure at memories of holidays spent on this smallest of the Ionian islands.

Despite its popularity, it has managed to avoid mass tourism and remain surprisingly unspoilt. There are no high-rises and sprawling resorts – only olive trees, hidden coves and a sense of time standing still.

Sell: Green peace

Lying seven miles off the southern coast of Corfu, Paxos is a world away from its bigger neighbour. The lack of an airport has kept the island, which is just six miles by two and a half, free of the overdevelopment seen in other parts of the Mediterranean.

There are only three villages – all tucked into picturesque harbours – plus a few hamlets scattered within the hilly, wooded interior. Thanks to the Venetians, the island is covered with olive groves bordered by tumbling dry-stone walls.

Gaios, the largest village, is a busy, cheerful place, with colourful Venetian-style houses lining the harbour. The new port where the hydrofoils from Corfu dock is just under a mile from the village centre, leaving the harbour free for pleasure craft, fishing boats, water taxis and excursion boats. With its restaurant-filled squares, bars and shops, it’s as bustling as Paxos gets – and once you adjust to the agreeably slow pace of island time, you wouldn’t want it any livelier than this.

Tiny Loggos on the eastern coast is the prettiest harbour, with tavernas hovering over the waterfront and cypress and olive groves curving round the village.

At the northern end of Paxos is Lakka, nearly as pretty as Loggos, with a deep horseshoe bay that makes it particularly alluring for flotilla holidaymakers. Lakka is a good bet for clients who want a decent range of restaurants, shops and beaches within easy reach, but prefer somewhere smaller than Gaios.

There is a bus service of sorts, but there are easier ways for clients to get around. For those staying in villas outside the villages, car hire is recommended. Holidaymakers staying in the villages will have restaurants, small supermarkets and bars on their doorstep, but might want to hire a small boat, a car or a scooter to make the most of the island’s beaches.

All three villages – indeed, the whole island – have the same informal, relaxed and friendly ambience. History buffs in search of ancient ruins might have to make do with exploring Paxos’s 63 churches – but even that might sound too strenuous after days spent doing very little apart from soaking up the sun and swimming in sparkling blue seas.

See: Beach bonanza

Paxos_©Mary_NovakovichThe rugged coast of Paxos shelters more than 30 beaches; all are pebbly and almost all are exquisite, with towering olive trees providing welcome shade. The water is amazingly clear and perfect for snorkelling.

The western coast is quite wild, with pebbly coves best reached by boat, with the added bonus of taking in the breathtaking cave formations along the way.

Clients staying in Lakka can walk to delightful Harami beach on the western side of the horseshoe bay. After an initial strip of pebbles, the surface turns to soft sand. It’s also possible to walk – but easier by car or scooter – to get to Plani beach on the western coast near Lakka’s lighthouse, which is one of the best places to watch the sun set.

In the relatively short distance along the coast from Lakka to Loggos, there’s a pleasingly wide variety of beaches. Orkos can be reached via a footpath through the woods, although many visitors find it easier to come by boat.

Monodendri is at the bottom of a winding lane and quickly becomes a favourite with clients: the long beach is home to two restaurants, one of which has a pool, and it’s also conveniently placed on the bus route between Lakka and Loggos.

Levrechio is only a few minutes’ walk from Loggos, which means it gets very busy in high season. It also doesn’t have the shade-giving olive trees of many of the other beaches, but holidaymakers who fancy a hike – or a boat ride – can swim in the pebbly coves of Marmari and Kipos about half a mile away.

Those who prefer sand to pebbles can take a boat to Antipaxos, about two miles south of Paxos, which has beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean. The only proper sandy beach on Paxos itself is Moggonissi, south of Gaios, which is a man-made beach with full facilities and a popular restaurant.

Outside classic sunbathing season, spring and autumn attract holidaymakers with a keen interest in walking, especially early in the year when wildflowers bring an explosion of colour to the woods and groves.

Stay: Chic boutiques

There’s only a handful of hotels on the island, as most of the accommodation on Paxos is in apartments and villas, ranging from simple harbour-side flats to luxurious rural houses with infinity pools.

Paxos Beach Hotel is the grande dame, its low-rise cluster of bleached Paxiot stone buildings hidden in olive and pine groves. It sits on its own private beach a mile south of Gaios, and rooms have balconies or spacious stone terraces from which to enjoy the sea views.

IMG_0460With a restaurant and chilled-out poolside lounge bar – not to mention a tennis court – it’s tempting to spend lazy days at the hotel without venturing too far. Sunvil offers a week’s B&B at the Paxos Beach Hotel from £837, including flights and transfers.

Deep in Paxos’s green interior just under a mile south of Gaios is the family-oriented Paxos Club Resort, which is surrounded by gardens and olive groves. All of the rooms have balconies or terraces with views either of the gardens or the large swimming pool. There’s also a hot tub on a little island in the pool.

The garden has plenty of places in which to relax, including a large covered terrace and hammocks. Although the hotel is modern, the restaurant is in the owners’ original family home, made of Paxiot stone and dating from 1896.

The hotel runs a shuttle service to Gaios and has a mini market selling basic provisions. Ionian & Aegean Island Holidays offers a week’s B&B at the Paxos Club Resort from £778, including flights and transfers.

For a boutique hotel offering pure romance, recommend Torri e Merli, half a mile south of Lakka. Rooms in this 18th‑century fortified manor house feature exposed stone walls and stylish pale‑wood furnishings that mix modern and traditional.

There are just seven rooms, and all have a balcony or a terrace, some with distant views of the sea. Amid the olive trees in the gardens is a smallish infinity pool, and the spa area includes an unusual relaxation room that’s carved out of a stone cellar. CV Villas offers a week’s B&B at Torri e Merli from £979, including flights and transfers.

Just as intimate, and also with just seven rooms, is Purple Apricot Hotel, run exclusively by Simpson Travel for adults only. Its chic, individually designed suites have balconies or terraces as well as kitchenettes. Surrounded by olive groves, it’s a mile and a half inland from Gaios but you can still see the sea from some of the rooms and the pool. A week’s B&B starts at £913, including flights and transfers.


Jemaa_el_Fna_Marrakech_©Adam_Batterbee copyA weekend away in Marrakech

Get lost in the red city. By Mary Novakovich

London Evening Standard

Published: 5 October 2015

Manic and exhilarating in equal measure, Marrakech is marginally mellower once autumn hits and temperatures plunge from 37C to a more reasonable 25C. Dusky pink walls surround the Medina, the historic heart of the Red City, where it’s practically impossible not to get lost in the labyrinth of alleyways crammed with souks, tanners, dyers and other workshops.

Some of the winding lanes eventually lead to one of Morocco’s greatest spectacles, Jemaa El-Fna. This massive square really gets going after 6pm, when food stalls are set up among the market traders, street musicians, storytellers, henna tattooists, snake charmers and tooth-pullers (complete with scary-looking pliers). Much as it’s tempting to think the whole show is put on purely for tourists, most of the spectators and diners are locals, enraptured by the Arabic stories being told against a smoky backdrop of grilling meat and a soundtrack of West African Gnaoua singers. When the Marrakech Film Festival (festivalmarrakech.info) begins on December 4, the square is the lively setting for nightly open-air screenings.

Beyond the Medina’s walls, the French colonial Ville Nouvelle keeps up the pink theme in its architecture but with wide boulevards and parks. One of the highlights is the Jardin Majorelle (00 212 524 313 047; jardinmajorelle.com), an exquisite garden of palm groves and vivid blue pergolas first developed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1923 and bought by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in 1980. There’s a tastefully minimalist memorial to the designer, who was born in neighbouring Algeria, amid the palm trees.

Processed with VSCOcam with s3 presetBed down: French fancy

Hidden down a lane near the Dar El Bacha Palace in the Medina is the elegant Riad de Tarabel (00 212 661 989 782; chicretreats.com), which re-opened last year after a refurbishment. Its French owners have brought a serene slice of southern France to the six sumptuous rooms ringing the tree-shaded courtyard. Relax in one of the open-air lounges or on the roof terrace’s sunloungers; by the end of this month there will be a swimming pool in the newly acquired neighbouring riad. While the decor is influenced by France, the food is firmly Moroccan, with delicious lunches and dinners available for €25-€40. Doubles from €160 B&B.

Fed and watered: Modern Moroccan and sophisticated sundowners

There’s a modern — but not too modern — take on Moroccan cuisine to go with views of the Medina’s Rahba Lakdima market from the chic roof terrace of Nomad (00 212 524 381 609;nomadmarrakech.com). Start with courgette and feta fritters with a minty yoghurt dip (80 dirhams/£5.40) before trying a tangy chicken tagine with harissa, preserved lemons and olives (100 dirhams/£6.80).

If you can’t pluck up the courage to try one of the open-air grill stalls in Jemaa El Fna, head to the voluptuous interior of Le Salama (00 212 524 391 300; lesalama.blogspot.co.uk) just off the square on Rue de Banques. There’s an excellent selection of classic Moroccan dishes, including starters such as briouates (filo parcels of meat, cheese or seafood; 140 dirhams/£9.50) and big plates of grilled lamb skewers (185 dirhams/£12.50). Take in the views of the city and the Atlas Mountains from the roof terrace during the all-evening two-for-one happy hour.

In Ville Nouvelle’s Guéliz district you’ll find smartly dressed Marrakshi stopping for lunch on the roof terrace at Kechmara (00 212 524 422 532; kechmara.com) on Rue de la Liberté. Its cosmopolitan menu takes in French, Mediterranean and eastern influences, with starters including a goat’s cheese salad (90 dirhams/£6) and mains such as an Italian beef carpaccio with pesto and parmesan (110 dirhams/£7.50). The lunchtime menu also includes baguette sandwiches with chips (70 dirhams/£4.75), while a tapas menu pops up for evening diners.

Not to be outdone in the roof-terrace stakes, Kosybar (00 212 524 380 324; kosybar.com) offers a sophisticated spot for sundowners from its two-storey panoramic terrace at Place des Ferblantiers, near the old Jewish quarter of the Medina. Try some very drinkable Moroccan wines for 60 dirhams (£4) a glass while listening to live jazz or R&B wafting up from the downstairs bar. If you’re peckish, check out the Japanese/Moroccan fusion dishes.

Marrakech_ceramices_©Adam_Batterbee copyIn the bag: Laid-back fashion 

For a soothing break from the madness — and to escape the constant stream of scooters — explore the Souk Cherifia Galerie des Créateurs (souk-cherifia.com) in the shaded courtyard under the rooftop La Terrasse des Épices café. You won’t get the hard sell as you browse the boutiques showcasing original Moroccan fashions, ceramics, accessories and handicrafts. Just outside the Souk des Teinturiers is Maktoub Concept Store (00 212 524 375 570; maxandjan.ma) run by Swiss/Belgian duo Max & Jan and featuring their own exotic take on North African style.

Cultural agenda: Picture perfect

It’s not easy to find but look out for the Maison de la Photographie (00 212 524 385 721; maisondelaphotographie.ma) on Rue Ahl Fassi near the Ben Youssef Medersa former mosque. Inside this old fondouk (a courtyard inn for travellers) is a captivating gallery tracing the history of Morocco and its people through changing photographic exhibitions. Your reward for reaching the top floor is the peaceful roof-terrace café and views of the Medina. Hold on to your ticket, as you can use it for return visits.

DETAILS: MARRAKECH

Marrakech is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow. A shuttle bus to Jemaa El Fna costs 30 dirham (£1.35) each way.

Travellink Morocco (00 212 524 448 797; travellink.ma) runs customised city tours as well as themed tours. Prices vary according to itinerary.

Chic Retreats (020 3397 0085; chicretreats.com) has luxury riads in its Marrakech collection in addition to Riad de Tarabel, including Riad el Mezouar in the Medina and Jnane Allia in the Palmeraie district in the north of the city.

visitmorocco.com


Town_Hall_Ljubljana_©Adam_Batterbee copy

48 Hours in Ljubljana

Summer is in full swing in the Slovenian capital, with music festivals that span classical to techno, a graphic arts biennial and more, writes Mary Novakovich

The Independent

Published: 17 July 2015

Why go now?

The balmy summer air brings everyone out into the Baroque streets and riverside cafés of Slovenia’s jewel-like capital. It’s like walking into the most civilised street party in Europe, with the bonus of exquisite architecture and top-notch cuisine.

Until 28 September, the Ljubljana Summer Festival (ljubljanafestival.si) runs a varied programme of classical concerts, opera, ballet and theatre in venues around the city. On a different note, there’s techno, blues, retro pop and club nights during the Gala Hala Summer Stage festival at the Metelkova Mesto alternative culture centre (metelkovamesto.org) until 31 July. And on 28 August, the Biennial of Graphic Arts kicks off, with three months of projects, exhibitions and events across the city (mglc-lj.si).

Looking further ahead, the city will be Europe’s Green Capital 2016, taking up the mantle from Bristol (ljubljana.si/en/green-capital).

Touch down

Ljubljana’s airport is 27km north-west of the city and is served by easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) from Stansted, Adria Airways (00 386 1 369 1010; adria.si) from Gatwick, Southend and Manchester, and Wizz Air (0911 752 2257; wizzair.com) from Luton.

The shuttle bus from the airport to the bus station costs €4.10, runs hourly and takes 50 minutes. Shared transfers can be booked with companies such as GoOpi (goopti.com) for about €9pp. Taxis cost between €40 and €45.

Ljubljanica_river_Ljubljana_©Adam_Batterbee copyGet your bearings

The Ljubljanica river curves through the city, with the pedestrianised Old Town on its eastern bank dominated by the medieval Ljubljana Castle.

Three linked cobbled squares, Ciril-Metodov Trg, Mestni Trg and Stari Trg – more like wide streets than squares – follow the old medieval layout of the city to Gornji Trg.

On the western bank of the river is the cultural centre of the city, with the university, the Philharmonic Hall, one of Europe’s oldest, and the main square, Presernov Trg. The main tourist office is by the Triple Bridge at Adamic-Lundrovo nabrezje 2 (00 386 1 306 1215; visitljubljana.com; open daily June to September, 8am to 9pm, to 7pm, October to May). Here, you can buy the Ljubljana Card, which gives free entry to museums, public transport and bike hire, plus various discounts. From €20.70 for 24 hours.

Check in

A few steps away from the river at Krojacka 6 is the chic Vander Urbani Resort (00 386 1 200 9000; vanderhotel.com) run by a friendly Australian- Slovenian couple. Along with stylish rooms is a rare sight in Ljubljana: a rooftop plunge pool. Doubles from €109, B&B.

Cubo at Slov-enska cesta 15 (00 386 1 425 6000;hotelcubo.com) has sleek modern décor in light-filled rooms. Doubles start at €130, including breakfast.

Hotel Park is a solid budget option at Tabor 5 (00 386 1 300 2500; hotelpark.si). Rooms are simple but come with a few perks including free yoga. Doubles from €50, with breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the tourist office, where just to the east is the Central Market (11) (weekdays 6am to 6pm, Saturday to 4pm). In front is the marble Triple Bridge – designed, like many of Ljubljana’s landmarks, by its celebrated native son, Joze Plecnik. It leads to Presernov Trg and the distinctive pink Franciscan church. From here, you can wander down pedestrianised Wolfova street, which goes past the plane trees of Kongresni Trg and handsome Baroque buildings, including the Philharmonic Hall.

Veer left towards the graceful columns of Cobblers’ Bridge – another Plecnik production – into the Old Town and Stari Trg. If you turn right, you reach Gornji Trg whose low buildings have a more medieval feel. Turning left at Stari Trg brings you to Mestni Trg and the town hall. Carry on until you reach the Central Market (11) where, halfway along, you can spot the lovelock-infested Mesarski bridge over the Ljubljanica river towards a string of busy bars.

Lunch on the run

Grab some freshly cooked fish from one of the food trucks at the Central Market – especially Ribica at the furthest end, which claims to sell the best fish in town. It’s not far off its boast. Generous plates of deep-fried whitebait cost €5.

Turn right on to Ciril-Metodov Trg and at No 15 you’ll find Klobasarna (15) (00 386 51 605 017; klobasarna.si), makers of the traditional kranjska sausage (€3.50-€5.90).

Window shopping

Check out the one-off boutiques in Stari Trg, including the creative handmade glass jewellery by Barbara Germ at No 12 (00 386 1 425 4662; steklobkg.com). If you have a few days spare, have couture-style knitwear custom made for you (€130 to €800) by the family-run Draz at Gornji Trg 9 (00 386 1 426 6041;draz.si).

Presernov_Trg_from_castle_Ljubljana_©Adam_Batterbee copyTake a view

Ride the funicular from Krekov Trg to Ljubljana Castle (3) (00 386 51 381690; ljubljanskigrad.si) and climb the 95 steps of the 19th-century Outlook Tower for panoramic views. A ticket to the castle via the funicular costs €10 and includes visits to the exhibition of Slovenian history and the puppet museum. Summer opening hours are from 9am to 11pm; times at other months vary.

An aperitif

The pull of the riverside bars is irresistible. Try the waterfront terrace at Solist Bar & Bar (00 386 41 323 263; solist.si) at Kongresni Trg 10, where an Aperol spritz is €3.20.

Head further down the eastern bank to Tozd (00 386 40 699453), a fun retro-themed waterside bar at Galusovo nabrezje 27, where you can try local craft beers, such as Human Fish, for €3.50. The bars along Petkovskovo nabrejze get very lively at happy hour (which is actually two hours, 5- 7pm), including Premier Pub at No 17 (00 386 1 430 5231) for beers at €2.40.

Dining with the locals

Tucked away in an alley off Wolfova street at Copova 5 is As Restaurant (00 386 1 485 8822; gostilnaas.si), which lives up to its name, meaning “ace”. On a beautiful garden terrace you can taste extraordinary dishes such as monkfish wrapped in octopus tempura for €25.

In an elegant 1920s building on Miklosiceva 17 near the train station, chef Janez Bratovz runs one of the city’s best fine-dining experiences at JB Restaurant (00 386 1 430 7070; jb-slo.com). Here, the humble egg yolk is transformed into a wonderful dish with pork crackling and puréed parsnips for €10.

Traditional Slovenian cuisine is served in the cosy interior of Spajza Restaurant at Gornji Trg 28 (00 386 1 425 3904; spajza-restaurant.si) or its courtyard garden. The creamy salt cod with truffles (€10) is the highlight.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The twin-towered Cathedral of St Nicholas (00 386 1 234 2690; lj-stolnica -rkc.si) is a splendid example of Baroque architecture, with ornate frescos by Giulio Quaglio. The sculptured bronze doors were an eerie addition to mark Pope John Paul II’s 1996 visit. Open daily, 10am to noon and 3-6pm, with services through the day.

Out to brunch

Indulge in a late breakfast from 10am till 2pm on Sundays at Cajna Hisa (00 386 1 421 2444), a relaxed tea house with outdoor tables at Stari Trg 3. Ease into the day with a dish of fried eggs, ham and cheese for €4.80.

Tivoli_Park_Ljubljana_©Adam_Batterbee copyA walk in the park

Covering an area of about 5sq km, Tivoli Park is Ljubljana’s largest green space and a cooling place to escape the heat. Chestnut trees line the avenues of the 19th-century gardens, which include an open-air art gallery, a café and a lake.

Take a ride

Attractive, handmade wooden boats make leisurely return trips along the Ljubljanica river every hour from 10am to 7pm.

Rides take 45 minutes and cost €8 (free for children) from the quayside at the bottom of Dvorni Trg (00 386 41 386 945;barka-ljubljanica.si). As the boat heads south, it’s not long before it’s enveloped by a lush green landscape.

Cultural afternoon

The National Gallery of Slovenia near Tivoli Park at Presernova cesta 24 (00 386 1 241 5418; ng-slo.si; Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm; €5) tells the story of Slovenian art from the 13th to the 20th centuries.

A few minutes’ walk away on Muzejska 1, the National Museum of Slovenia (00386 1 241 4400; nms.si; daily 10am to 6pm, until 8pm on Thursday; €6) explores the country’s past including Neanderthal and Roman artefacts. A joint ticket for €8.50 gets you into the Natural History Museum (same opening hours, €3) in the same building.

The icing on the cake

There’s a Friday feast every week from March to October at Pogacarjev Trg beside the Central Market. From 8am until 8pm, the Open Kitchen Food Market (odprtakuhna.si) turns the square into a huge gourmet hotspot as dozens of local restaurateurs set up stalls in the open air.


Mary_Novakovich_paragliding_Valmorel_©_Adam_BatterbeeUp, up and away in Valmorel

It might be small, but this ski resort in the French Alps offers some unforgettable experiences – including paragliding on skis. By Mary Novakovich

The National

Published: 19 February 2015

As I huddle on skis on the edge of a snowy hill overlooking Valmorel, Franck is behind me untangling a rainbow of ropes. “These,” he says, “are our best friends.” I’m already looking at Franck as my new best friend: he has my life in his hands – along with the ropes and the giant parasail they’re attached to. We even skip the formal French “vous” and go straight to the chummy “tu”.

Franck’s technique for dealing with nervous novice paragliders (or parapentistes, as they’re called in France) is to pretend that there’s nothing remotely insane about taking off from a mountain on skis and attached to a parasail. He accompanies children as young as eight, so there’s nothing for me to be worried about. Presumably, these are the same eight-year-olds I’d seen earlier, speedily skiing past me in that fearless way children do.

Franck straps me into the tandem harness and thrusts a GoPro on a stick into my hand so I can film what I hope won’t be my last moments on Earth, before we gently but inexorably slide off the crest of the hill. Within seconds, we’re airborne and soaring over woods and the village. It’s serenely unreal, this feeling of floating over the forests, bird-like, but without any effort. I have Franck to thank for that, as he works the parasail’s strings like a master ­puppeteer.

“Do you like carousels?” he asks.

“What do you mean?” I reply.

“Like this.” Franck suddenly swoops us downwards like a merry-go-round horse gone berserk.

“No. I don’t like carousels.”

He laughs as we go back to imitating birds on a lazy afternoon jaunt in this quiet corner of France’s Tarentaise Valley. The wind echoes in my ears as we sail over Valmorel’s sloped Savoyard rooftops.

The village was created in 1976, but its architecture bears no resemblance to some of the modernist horrors that evolved in France in the 1960s. The planners took note of their predecessors’ mistakes and went back to Savoyard basics: lots of wood and slate, a pedestrianised high street and no buildings higher than four storeys. One of them is the new luxury residence where I’m staying, La Grange aux Fées, which I can see as we prepare to land on the slope about 100 metres in front of it.

Taking off is a breeze, but I come down with a bit of a bump. Franck lands a split second before I do, but I make the mistake of digging my skis in too quickly, bringing us to an abrupt halt. That means trudging 100 metres down a slope that has very little snow cover and quite a lot of mud and rocks. Still, I’d flown like a bird, and nothing much mattered after that.

I’d spent the morning checking out some of Valmorel’s 165 kilometres of pistes that make up the Grand Domaine, which includes St-François-Longchamps and the green beginners’ slopes in the hamlet of Doucy. Just outside my residence is the Lanchettes chairlift, a rickety relic from 1976, but it still competently does the business of taking skiers up to 1,828 metres, where Franck’s Here We Go Parapente is based. The wide blue runs are perfect for my first day on the slopes, even if the lack of fresh snow makes the going a bit icy. Valmorel’s cold climate and north-facing slopes mean that whatever snow comes down has a tendency to stick around, helped by the many snow cannons that keep going through the frosty nights.

My guide, Sébastien, intended to take me over to St-François-Longchamps, where I’d been looking forward to skiing along the Col de la ­Madeleine – one of the Tour de France’s most arduous climbs – but piste conditions aren’t on my side. That means more time for a leisurely lunch on the sunny mountain terrace at Les Voiles du Nant (www.skiroc.com/voiles-du-nant), where I enjoy delicious parmentier de lapin aux cèpes – a rabbit and mushroom version of shepherd’s pie. It’s the sister restaurant to Ski Roc (www.skiroc.com) in the village where, the night before, I try gorgeous tartiflette ravioli. This is certainly the place to feed my Alpine cheese addiction.

Les_Voiles_du_Nant_Valmorel_©_Adam_BatterbeeValmorel, as I discover, is also a place with a very special atmosphere. Its heart is the pedestrianised high street, Le Bourg, where there’s a surprisingly large number of restaurants, cafes and shops for such a small village. Come 4pm, the street begins to fill with people – mainly families – stopping for hot chocolate at neighbouring cafes such as Le Petit Prince (www.restaurant-lepetitprince.com), Le Petit Savoyard and La Source. La Flambée crêperie was doing brisk business in crêpes and savoury galettes, and the furry seats outside La Perce Neige pizzeria were all taken. Farther along, past the Hotel du Bourg – the only hotel in the village – the jungle theme inside Jimbo Lolo (www.jimbololo.fr) attracts people to its wooden swings round the bar and its appealing jumble of Tex-Mex and tapas.

So much of the resort is focused on families – with plenty of activities for children – yet its ambience is lively enough to keep the grown-ups and even bored ­teenagers happy. The only problem is the same lack of fresh snow that has afflicted so many parts of the Alps this season. This means that some of the activities that usually kick off once the pistes close can’t safely take place – airboarding, for example, and the linked toboggans known as snake-glisse – because the slopes are too icy.

The lack of deep snow doesn’t get in the way of the following afternoon’s activity, when I discover that snowshoeing doesn’t actually require a huge amount of snow. My guide, Sylvain, takes me out to L’Aigle Blanc on the outskirts of the village, where we climb the hill to get sweeping views of the valley and its hamlets. The snowshoes’ spikes make easy work of the icy and rocky bits, and their crunching sound is the only one heard on the empty mountainside. About halfway through the ­90-minute walk, Sylvain brings out a flask with his own brew of sweet thyme tea – a sublime flavour that I’ll never forget. In the distance, clouds hover, hinting at fresh snow.

After the snowshoe trek, I feel that I can justify having a raclette at La Flambée that evening – blithely ignoring the fact that my lunch had been an equally cheesy one at Altipiano mountain restaurant after a morning skiing around the foot of Col du Mottet. There, they hollow out a large rustic bread roll and fill it with melted reblochon cheese. A reblochonnade it’s called, and it’s simply fabulous.

The snow clouds eventually deliver what they have promised, along with zero visibility, so it’s time to check out the spa facilities at La Grange aux Fées, which include a large swimming pool, two hot tubs, two saunas and one of the most agreeable hammams I’ve ever used. The smartly furnished apartments have the warm wooden walls, dark leather furniture and deep-red fabrics that you want to snuggle in if you’re in the Alps. The kitchen is – unlike many self-catering apartments – equipped to do some proper cooking. My big balcony overlooks the village, where through the veil of snow, I can see the rooftops turning thickly white.

It’s back to blue skies the following morning, when I finally make it across to St-François-Longchamps. Back up little rickety Lanchettes, zigzagging up and down pistes and chairlifts until I can ski across to Col de la Madeleine. For this Tour de France fan, it’s a thrill to ski the wide treeless pistes to the 2,000-metre Col de la Madeleine, stopping for a rich hot chocolate at La Banquise (www.labanquise2000.fr). I find it amusing that this notoriously tough climb on the Tour de France is a gentle green run during the ski season.

As I have a flight to catch in Geneva two hours away, I can’t linger too long in St-François-Longchamps. My last treat is lunch at the friendly Le Grand-Pic in the picturesque hamlet of Celliers, reached by a shiny new cable car not far from my old Lanchettes chairlift. I sit in blinding sunshine on the terrace, savouring my final fix of Alpine cheese (tomme and Abondance this time) and feeling my skin glow.

The day after I depart, most of the Alps are covered in heavy snow. If I’d stayed in Valmorel one more day, I could have gone airboarding, done a night-time snowshoe trek followed by a fondue in the forest and landed in soft snow with my new best friend Franck. I’ll have to save that for next time.


AB8_7617

Montenegro or bust

Away from the coastal casinos, this small country is big on lakes and hills – ideal for active breaks, with wine and food to match. By Mary Novakovich

The Guardian
Published: Saturday 31 May 2014

“Montenegro is not Moscow-on-Sea,” prime minister Milo Djukanovic said at the Brussels Forum earlier this year. Anyone who’s been to Montenegro’s Adriatic coast would disagree if they only saw Budva’s strip of Russian-financed and patronised hotels and casinos. It’s a depressing sight.

What’s not depressing is the tourism found away from the coast. I was heading to Lake Skadar, which straddles Montenegro’s border with Albania, and whose water is so clean it’s almost drinkable. It’s home to pelicans, cormorants, herons and dozens of other bird species, along with the carp, trout and eel that end up on the area’s dinner plates.

Six years ago, this dreamy spot drew British couple Emma and Ben Heywood to what would become Villa Miela, an old stone house they converted into the base for their Undiscovered Montenegro activity holidays. The villa’s wide terrace overlooks the Crmnica valley, with Skadar to the right and the lakeside town of Virpazar ahead.

I’d been to Virpazar before, and had taken a boat trip along the twisting Crnojevica river to the lake. It’s about the most touristy activity you can do around Skadar; until Ben and Emma arrived, it was pretty much the only thing you could do. Now they take guests on guided hikes, kayak trips and visits to winemakers.

Last month, Ryanair started flying from Stansted to Podgorica, which is less than 45 minutes from Villa Miela, and saves Ben and his guests a four-hour round trip from Dubrovnik. Podgorica is just an hour from the Albanian border, and Ben told me British-based Albanians are also making great use of the route.

Still, there’s a long way to go before this area is overrun – the infrastructure just doesn’t exist yet. Hiking is in its infancy in this country that regards mountain trails as fit mainly for mules. Emma led us along a route from Villa Miela over a mountain and down towards the ancient village of Godinje. The rocky trail led through woods that cleared often enough to give us glimpses of the green Crmnica valley below. The heavenly scent of wild sage, thyme and spring flowers tempered the descent along tricky scree. And then the lake came into view, with forested peaks reflected in the clear water.

We could see the upper part of Godinje in the distance, many of its 17th-century houses crumbling after an earthquake in 1979. One that’s still standing belongs to Mijo Lekovic, winemaker and genial cook to anyone who makes a prior arrangement. His lunch of fish soup and marinated carp was delicious, and liberally accompanied with wine which sent us sailing down the road for the 90-minute lakeside walk back to the villa past countless vineyards. We were in the land of vranac, the underrated red wine that powers the Balkans.

AB8_7280Montenegro was once the centre of Yugoslavia’s wine industry, and it still produces the stuff on an industrial scale. The Heywoods offer wine-tasting tours of other local producers, focusing on small-scale winemakers such as Ivo and Radmila Uksanovic.

Ben (who now speaks Montenegrin) was on hand to interpret over a generous dinner prepared by Radmila and served with Ivo’s smooth red wine.

Ivo has had several careers during his 70 years, including a stint in the Yugoslav navy. “But I prefer to make wine,” he said, showing off his new sommelier’s certificate.

Montenegrin enthusiasm for oenology can be dangerous, as they haven’t really grasped the concept of a wine tasting yet. You don’t spit, just glug – and the wine is normally followed by a slug of rakija (brandy). I discovered this to my cost during a visit to irrepressible winemaker Ilija Klisic, which possibly wasn’t the wisest thing to do the day before my first attempt at kayaking

When Ben picked us up at 8.30am the next day, we took our hangovers on the bumpy 45-minute ride to the lakeside village of Murici. Ben is a keen kayaker, and is enthusiastic about exploring parts of Lake Skadar that can be reached only by boat – preferably ones without motors. After a quick lesson in paddling, we were off. We paddled past an island teeming with herons’ nests full of hatchlings and spotted a Dalmatian pelican overhead.

As we drew up to a tiny inlet and prepared to unload our picnic lunch, the stillness was broken by the sound of a motorboat. A curious fisherman had spotted us and was eager to chat to the famous Englishman who’s bringing tourists to the area.

The monks at 15th-century Moracnik monastery stayed in their quarters while we explored the tiny island they share with wild tortoises and lizards, but on the island of Beska, a short paddle away, the nuns were more hospitable, inviting us in for pomegranate juice and biscuits.

On our last walk we wound through the wooded Orahovo valley, past rivers that in July would invite a quick dip, but in April involved getting soaked while fording streams on the way to lunch at Tanja Dajkovic’s house, where we were served dizzying amounts of home-produced food and drink for €10.

Tanja’s terrace overlooks her little vineyard, beehives and orchard, and we feasted on hot peppers, air-dried ham, filo pastry with spinach and crepe-type rolls filled with cheese. This certainly wasn’t Moscow-on-Sea. Perhaps the prime minister had a point.

Getting there

The trip was provided by Undiscovered Montenegro (020-3287 0015,undiscoveredmontenegro.com), which offers a seven-night multiactivity trip from £525pp, including four activities and some meals but not flights.Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Podgorica from £44 one way


DSCN0013Thrills and spills in Châtel

This French resort in the Portes du Soleil is enticing visitors with strange new sports, says Mary Novakovich

The Independent
Published: Friday 1 November 2013

The wind was getting worse as the chairlift lurched its way upwards, the snow hitting my cheeks in tiny spikes. My chairlift companion, under whose helmet and goggles lurked a glamorous Parisian TV presenter, was trying to calm my nerves. Whereas she was excited at the prospect of airboarding for the first time, I was bricking it.

Whose idea was it to hurtle head first down a red run on an inflatable board with no means of braking apart from the knees and feet? Oh, mine. I was in Châtel in France’s Portes du Soleil domain, where they’ve been coming up with more and more ingenious ways of zooming down a mountain. There’s snake-glisse, in which small toboggans are attached to each other and you swing down the mountain like the flick of a serpent’s tail. (The further back you are, the wilder the ride.) Then there’s yooning, a throwback to the old-fashioned sledge, but with only one runner, making it that much faster and a little bit more furious.

But the one that gets the extreme-sports fans excited (and frightens those who have only watched it on YouTube) is airboarding, which takes place in the Pré la Joux ski area. Once the skiers have made their final descent of the day, it’s time for the airboarders to fling themselves down the 6km run on an inflatable body board less than a metre long.

“Lean left or right to steer,” we were told. “And how do we stop?” we asked. “Use your legs. Or just roll off.” Which I did, repeatedly, as I tried to plough through the powder, swearing profusely. Snow got everywhere, making me wish for the first and only time in my adult life that I had a one-piece ski suit.

AB7_6193Then something clicked. I found myself flying down the piste without falling off the board, without feeling out of control, my legs up in the air, the swearing turning into yells of delight. Even the bumps that sent me airborne were exhilarating rather than scary. Unlike some snow activities I’ve tried over the years, this was one I could get used to, and make me actively enjoy a sense of speed, rather immediately try to apply the brakes.

I’d spent the day trying other new things too, one a bit on the sedate side (visiting a cheese farm), another quite a lot faster (dog-sledding). As I was in the Abondance valley near France’s eastern border with Switzerland, I could watch abondance cheese being made at Emmanuel and Corinne David’s farm, Gaec Barbossine. They make eight large rounds of the nutty comté-like cheese every day – without fail, as the cows don’t take a day off from producing milk. Melted slowly with white wine and garlic, the cheese becomes a sublime dish called berthoud, which I could savour over lunch at Le Clos Savoyard in the nearby village of La Chapelle d’Abondance.

But before lunch I made the acquaintance of six excitable huskies that were desperately keen to take me for a ride in La Chapelle d’Abondance’s large expanse of trails. While their owner, Vincent, did the real work of calling out cryptic commands, I clung on to the back of the sled trying not to lose my footing on the narrow runner. A fresh snowfall had covered everything in a blanket of white, turning an already enjoyable ride along wide tracks and snow-covered pines into something magical. Every once in a while, Vincent would stop to let the dogs roll about in the snow to cool off while he cuddled them and gave them loving encouragement. His dedication to his adoring animals was touching to watch.

AB7_6080Dogs, cheese and airboards aside, I was here to do some skiing too. Although the Portes du Soleil domain isn’t quite as big as its glitzy Trois Vallées rival, it does allow you to ski easily into Switzerland. After a few hours of pootling about the lovely wide runs at Super Châtel, my ESF guide, Jérôme, and I took the long draglift over the Swiss border towards Morgins. The lunar landscape, nearly completely devoid of trees, was blinding in the bright sunlight. Just beyond the old Swiss customs house (still occasionally in use, said Jérôme) was the terrace at Chalet Neuf, where hot chocolate and sunloungers were waiting. After a couple of cloudy days, the sun on my face was heavenly.

Earlier in the week, I got a glimpse into just how big the Portes du Soleil is, with its 12 resorts and 650km of pistes. Starting at Pré la Joux, I followed the pistes up and over the ridge that separates Châtel from its better-known neighbours Avoriaz and Morzine. A quick dip into the valley from Les Lindarets and back up again and I was looking at the modernist architecture of Avoriaz. Turning right brought me into Morzine, a village about double the size of Châtel and just as attractive in its traditional Savoyard architecture.

Another set of animals was waiting for me here, this time two horses driven by Christine, who cheerfully held up traffic as she gave me a leisurely tour of the village in her carriage. It was a gentle prelude to the evening’s considerably more strenuous activity: night-time sledging. Guided by my head torch, I tried to manoeuvre my sledge along a wooded blue piste while the lights of Morzine started to twinkle below. Maybe I was missing my airboard, but I just couldn’t get the hang of the sledge, which seemed to develop a mind of its own. It didn’t like to brake in the soft fresh snow and had an annoying way of veering towards the edge of the piste and the deep drop beyond.

Mollified by a superb dinner of gambas and hearty sausages in La Chamade in Morzine, I headed back to Châtel in a taxi to the supremely comfortable Chalets d’Angèle, the newest property in the MGM collection of luxury residences. Here I could stop impersonating a Blue Peter presenter and just wallow in the spa, Jacuzzi and swimming pool. After the thrills and spills of the past few days, an hour-long full-body massage reminded me that life in the mountains doesn’t always have to go at full tilt.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Peak Retreats (0844 576 0123; peakretreats.co.uk), which has seven nights’ self-catering at the four-star Les Chalets d’Angèle from £232pp based on four sharing, including Eurotunnel crossing. The nearest airport is Geneva, which is served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from London Stansted and Gatwick. Magic Transfers (magic-transfers.com) offers shared transfers to Châtel from £67pp.

Being there

Sport 2000 (germainsports.sport2000.fr) has seven days’ ski hire from €64pp. Ecole Ski Academy (ecoleskiacademy.com) offers airboarding, snake-glisse and yooning for €20 per descent. Chippewa Loisirs Nature (Chippewa-loisirsnature.com) has dogsled runs for €55pp (€25 for children). Gaec Barbossine offers free farm visits daily from 7am-12pm and 5-8pm (00 33 6 50 73 27 05; barbossine@orange.fr). Night sledging at Morzine costs €23pp. Le Clos Savoyarde, Chapelle d’Abondance (00 33 4 50 73 50 32). Restaurant La Chamade, Morzine (lachamade.com).

More information

Chatel.com; Portesdusoleil.com; Morzine-avoriaz.com; Savoie-mont-blanc.co.uk


Via Cassia from Montefiascone3

The long and winding road to Rome

The Via Francigena runs all the way from Canterbury to Rome. Mary Novakovich walks the picturesque final stage of the ancient pilgrims’ route

The Independent
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2013

The road to Rome is a long one – especially if you’re starting from Kent. That’s what Sigeric the Serious, a 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, did when he set off on foot to St Peter’s in the Vatican to be consecrated by the pope. Luckily for the millions of pilgrims who followed over the centuries, he made a note of his return journey, putting flesh on the bones of what was called the Via Francigena.

I was walking the final section of it – from Orvieto to Rome – on a new nine-day walking holiday launched by Headwater. It would take me through some of the least touristy parts of Italy I had ever seen, past Etruscan settlements, volcanic lakes, majestic hilltop towns and blissfully empty landscapes of olive groves, oak forests and flower-filled meadows. The holiday doesn’t stick slavishly to the route and at times has to cheat a bit (you try walking into Rome on the motorways that have since sprung up), but it didn’t take long for me to wonder why the Via Francigena’s popularity has waned while Santiago de Compostella’s has soared.

Elegant, hilltop Orvieto was a delightful place to start the first 16km walk, even if it wasn’t strictly on the Via Francigena. But within a couple of kilometres after descending from the town and arriving at a wood, I spotted the first red-and-white Via Francigena marker: a drawing of a man with a suitably medieval pageboy haircut, rucksack and staff. (Newer markers are daringly modern and actually include a female figure.)

Fields of gently waving wheat and bright red poppies flanked quiet roads and tracks, and a sheep farmer obligingly created a classic bucolic scene by bringing his flock into the road. At about the time I crossed an invisible border from Umbria into Lazio three hours later, I could see Lake Bolsena in the distance, the largest volcanic lake in Europe. I walked past tiny houses built into giant lava cliffs on the road to the attractive town of Bolsena, with its medieval quarter and black-sand beach. A jolting coffee at a beachfront café marked the end of my five-hour walk.

Serene views of the lake came with my dinner of buttery coregone lake fish at the Loriana Park Hotel, run by friendly sisters Antonella and Bianca. They gave me a substantial packed lunch for my next 16km stage to Montefiascone, a pretty medieval town on the edge of a volcanic crater. First I had a few climbs to reach a road overlooking the lake, where owners of large villas gave me serious garden envy with their enormous vegetable plots, vineyards and olive groves. As the path dipped in and out of woods, wild flowers were everywhere: tiny orchids, wild roses, broom, elderflower and yet more poppies. The scent was heavenly.

Lunch was in the dappled shade of the Parco di Turona nature reserve, home to some of the loveliest, lushest forest trails I’ve ever wandered through. The only sounds were those of the river Turona and a particularly happy cuckoo; the only movement came from scuttling lizards and zillions of butterflies swooping madly. Here I spotted the first concrete marker with the magic word “Roma” under a stencilled pilgrim, reminding me that this was an important route – even though I had yet to see another soul on it.

I emerged from the forest to tread on ancient history along the Roman road of Via Cassia. On the verge was the Quercia del Pellegrino, the Pilgrim’s Oak, its cool shade compelling me to follow the example of countless pilgrims who had rested here.

VF marker, Vetralla in distanceThe rather dull outskirts of Montefiascone were quickly forgotten after my uphill walk to the miniature pastel-coloured piazza in the old town. Just beyond the café tables I could see the huge 17th-century dome of the town cathedral which, as I was to discover over the following days, is visible for miles around.

From the Hotel Urbano V’s rooftop terrace I could see a wonderful vista: Lake Bolsena, the Appenine mountains and my next day’s destination, Viterbo. It didn’t look that far away, but it was 18km on foot. The hotel’s delicious pappardelle al ragù and veal saltimbocca fortified me for the next stage.

The morning’s joy of a descent rather than an ascent was enhanced by a strong sense of history I experienced along another stretch of the Via Cassia. As the path dodged under a railway and past meadows, I encountered my first – and only – fellow travellers: two Spaniards, two Danes and an Irish couple.

The Etruscan town of Viterbo looked uninviting on the approach, but its exquisite medieval quarter of San Pellegrino made up for it. My B&B, the 15th-century Terrazza Medioevale, was in the heart of it and run by the adorable mother and son Luciana and Daniele. The following day off from walking gave me time to explore Viterbo’s cobbled alleys and stately palaces, as well as watch the vintage-car race Mille Miglia, which just happened to roar past my B&B door.

The road out of Viterbo was the most dramatic I’d seen so far – high, almost overwhelming rock walls where the trees mingled at the top. Once the landscape calmed down a bit, it was back to tranquil wheat fields and olive groves. I was heading towards Vetralla, specifically the family-run Antica Locanda. At one point the path veered cross country, but the walking notes confidently led me to a peaceful picnic spot in an olive grove and eventually to the warm welcome of the Locanda and Patrizia’s tasty wild boar pasta.

At this point the holiday cheats a bit. My final day on the Via Francigena was a leisurely 14km walk through hazelnut groves and past abandoned medieval towers to Capranica, whose higgledy-piggledy old town was an unexpected delight. I was driven back to the Locanda by Patrizia’s husband Bernardino, who took me to Rome the following day. You can find roads into Rome that aren’t major routes, Bernardino told me, but it wouldn’t be the Via Francigena. I recalled other approaches into towns, and how even more tedious the industrial outskirts of Rome would have been. I was content to be dropped off at the top of the Villa Borghese and walk two hours to the Vatican, where I picked up the final part of Sigeric the Serious’s trail.

Sigeric’s original walking notes are in the British Library, appropriately enough for a man whose nickname is thought to refer to his high level of learning. As I climbed the cupola of St Peter’s and gazed over the rooftops of Rome, I was grateful to those scholars whose research turned Sigerac’s jottings into a serious walk.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) on the nine-day independent Orvieto to Rome walk, which starts at £1,299 per person. This includes British Airways flights to Rome, rail transfers, eight nights’ B&B accommodation, six lunches, four evening meals, luggage transfers between hotels and walking notes and maps.


Azure window4 copyTrail of the unexpected: Gozo

Walks on a small island

Malta’s little sister is a magical mix of culture and landscapes, says Mary Novakovich

The Independent
Published: Saturday 2 November 2012

Small is beautiful in Gozo. The island is tiny – 14km by 7km – and this Maltese outpost bears little resemblance to the package holiday resorts covering much of its big sister’s coast. Its jumble of cultures and strange landscapes are matched by a tranquil and laid-back air. Locals say they run on GMT – “Gozo Maybe Time” – which sounds just about the right speed for a walking holiday.

I was keen to get away from a chilly Britain, and my walking needs chime nicely with the idea of Gozo Maybe Time, so the walking tour I’d chosen seemed perfect. I’d been supplied with extremely detailed notes on seven walks as well as a map, but everything was up to me. There was no timetable, no rush. There wasn’t even the hassle of changing hotels, as the full eight days of the holiday were spent at the five-star Hotel Ta’ Cenc. The palm-shaded collection of bungalows curving around three swimming pools had a relaxed Caribbean look to it, the whole complex clustering on the Ta’ Cenc cliffs with marvellous views of Malta to the south-east.

Thanks to their strategic Mediterranean position south of Sicily and east of Tunisia, Gozo and Malta bear the marks of numerous invaders and colonisers. Hence villages with Moorish architecture and red British phone boxes in squares dominated by Italianate churches – and cars that drive on the left. The language too is a collision of cultures: an old Arabic tongue mixed with Italian, Sicilian, English and a bit of French.

My initial excitement at experiencing Gozo’s heady mix was somewhat drenched, however, by heavy rain. I was barely out of Gozo’s capital, Victoria, before the heavens opened. I trudged uphill for half an hour towards the village of Xaghra. (The bewildering place names instantly became clearer when I discovered that you pronounce X like “Sh” and “gh” is silent. So Xaghra becomes Shara.) There I was offered a lift from a kind-hearted Gozitan woman who couldn’t bear the sight of a bedraggled figure in the rain.

Tempting, but no.

The initial part of my walk was a 4km route to the north of the island to the deep-red sands of Ramla Bay, one of Gozo’s most popular beaches. First, though, there was Calypso’s cave to peer into. Homeric scholars suggest that this was where the nymph was supposed to have held Odysseus captive for seven years in The Odyssey. An elderly woman selling souvenirs helpfully told me there was no charge for entering the cave. I could see why: a wooden walkway led down to a viewing platform from where I could view the red sands of Ramla Bay, vivid even in the wet gloom. Just to my left, the tiny entrance to the cave looking uninviting. It was hard to see how you could squeeze your way into it, unless you were of nymph-like proportions. I saved my energy for the muddy, rocky descent to the bay.

A statue of the Madonna erected by grateful sailors watched over the terracotta sands, the summertime masses replaced by a few dog walkers in need of a blast of sea air. The beach cafés were closed, but they provided enough shelter for me to eat my lunch of pastizzi, the addictive savoury pastries filled with anchovies and tomatoes I had picked up from a bakery in Victoria.

A post-lunch glow and a dry spell accompanied my wander past quiet vineyards on empty farm tracks. According to my map, somewhere near here were the Ggantija Temples –large, mysterious Neolithic structures that predate Egypt’s pyramids. They weren’t gigantic enough to be seen from my route, though.

This Gozitan propensity to think big on a small island hasn’t disappeared, as I discovered when I arrived at the village of Xewkija. The dome of the church of St John the Baptist is one of the biggest in Europe, visible from every one of the unusual flat-topped hills that mark Gozo’s landscape. From Xewkija it was only a 40-minute walk back to the hotel and its much-needed spa.

Bajjada cliffs2 copyI was saving the best walk for the best weather. Gozo’s most renowned natural wonder, the giant coastal stone arch known as the Azure Window, would look even more extraordinary against a blue-sky backdrop. Within half an hour of leaving the village of Santa Lucija I was on a high-level coastal path overlooking Xlendi Bay with views of the Ras il-Bajda cliffs behind me.

Fragrant wild herbs and flowers covered lands that were terraced, subdivided and separated from each other by low walls made of the honey-coloured limestone that goes into most of the island’s structures. Soon I reached Wardija Point, where I could see the vista I’d been waiting for: the jagged coast of limestone cliffs with the stone arch of the Azure Window jutting into the sea at Dwejra Point. Another hour’s walk led me along zig-zagging paths past limestone quarries and close to the foot of this magnificent arch, under which the sea seemed to be an impossible shade of deep blue. After hours of blissful solitude on the cliffs I was now sharing the rocky shore with a few dozen tourists who had taken the easy option and hopped on a bus to the island’s biggest attraction. No matter: there was plenty of room for us all, including – offshore – the scuba divers who love Gozo’s clear waters.

On my final walk – like the others, about 10km in length – I headed to the Bajjada cliffs on the south-western side of the island. These I spotted the previous day from the opposing headland, but close up they were even more beautiful, the creamy limestone strata resembling layers of a cake.

Xlendi Bay was my goal, another favourite Gozitan swimming haunt with a tiny beach and bathing platforms built into the rocks. Restaurants lined the sunny quayside, including the Boat House, where a typically Gozitan dish of spaghetti in rabbit sauce succeeded in weaning me off pastizzi. A hint of Italy on my plate, the architectural legacy of the Moors and English around me – it is indeed a small world in Gozo.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Headwater (01606 720199;headwater.com) which offers an eight-day independent walking holiday in Gozo from £1,034 per person. Price includes flights with Air Malta (0906 103 0012; airmalta.com) from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester, seven nights’ half-board at the five-star Hotel Ta’ Cenc (tacenc.com), private taxi and ferry transfers, maps and route notes.

Eating there

The Boat House, Xlendi (00 356 2156 9153; theboathousegozo.com)

More information

Gozo tourism: islandofgozo.org

Malta tourism: visitmalta.com


AB3_1193Antibes and Juan-les-Pins:

A true taste of two towns

The Riviera neighbours make the perfect pair, says Mary Novakovich

The Independent
Published: Saturday 12 February 2011

This article won the French Travel Article of the Year and Best Newspaper Article awards in the Abtof French Travel Article of the Year Awards 2011

 

If you’re looking at a map, it’s hard to know where Antibes ends and Juan-les-Pins begins. These Riviera neighbours are lumped together in brochures, giving the impression that it’s all one big cohesive sprawl along the Cap d’Antibes peninsula between Cannes and Nice. It isn’t, of course – not when you’ve got ancient Antibes with its Greek origins and 16th-century ramparts sitting next door to the art deco elegance of beach-lined Juan-les-Pins. They couldn’t be more different, nor would you want one without the other.

I wasn’t sure which town to stay in last summer, so I tried both. There are surprisingly few hotels in Antibes itself: most are in Juan-les-Pins or tucked away further along the peninsula. Renting a flat, however, is an affordable option. English expatriates Louise and Paul have a couple of studios on the fringes of the old town near the adjoining beaches at Ponteil and Salis. Mine was on the first floor, with the sea right in front. Breakfast was on the balcony, with a view of the ramparts of Vieil Antibes just to the left of the vivid Mediterranean. I could think of worse ways of starting the day.

A three-minute stroll through the stone bastions leads to one of the more evocative Picasso museums. Quite a few towns along the Côte d’Azur lay claim to being a former home of the great man (well, he did get around a bit), but few match the grandeur of Chateau Grimaldi. The imposing 16th-century chateau fell into the artist’s hands for a mere six months in 1946, but he left behind a decent number of works in what became the first museum dedicated to the artist. It also houses his La Joie De Vivre, which he painted here. The joy captured in the painting is evident when you walk out into the sculpture-strewn garden and take in the sea view he woke up to every day.

Wander through the maze of narrow streets from the museum and you soon reach the large covered market in Cours Masséna. It’s so easy to get carried away by the produce here: olives, cheese, tapenade, fresh fruit and veg, plus the wonderful charcuterie brought in by Corsican traders.

AB3_1276Once the stallholders pack up at 1pm, the restaurants lining the market spread their tables out for lunch. For a surreal aperitif, head downstairs to the Bar Absinthe in the basement of an olive-oil shop just off the market. You can’t miss the big green neon sign, although it might look a bit blurry on the way out.

The cave-like interior does a good job in evoking the atmosphere of an early 20th-century drinking den. Vintage posters cover the vaulted ceiling, and rows of glasses are backlit with the distinctive colour of the green fairy, as absinthe is nicknamed. It gets quite raucous in the evenings when they have live music, but on this quiet Sunday afternoon it felt deliciously louche to be knocking back a 68-proof spirit.

Time for a reviving walk through the streets of Vieil Antibes, where the houses seem intent on outdoing each other with their floral displays. Hidden away in a small square is Safranier, an autonomous commune with its own small town hall and a tiny street named after Zorba The Greek author and former resident Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s also home to Le Safranier, an unpretentious restaurant serving lovely authentic Provençal dishes to what looked like the owner’s large circle of friends. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to see in a hilltop village, not the Riviera.

At the top of the town is a gate leading to Port Vauban and Vieux Port, the enormous marinas that separate Antibes from the dramatic 16th-century Fort Carré perched on a rocky outcrop. The marinas with their expensive crafts are about the flashiest sights in Antibes; it’s not the place for the vulgar ostentation you see along the Côte d’Azur. It might be a different story in some of the moneyed enclaves along the Cap d’Antibes, however.

I hired a scooter to explore the rocky peninsula of the Cap. As you would expect, there are expensive villas hiding behind iron gates and giant shrubbery, as well as luxury hotels such as the Hotel Cap Eden Roc, favourite haunt of film stars during the Cannes Film Festival. But there are also inviting coves such as the Plage des Ondes, and a museum devoted to Napoleon, who had been incarcerated in Fort Carré.

A winding path takes you uphill to the Phare de la Garoupe, one of the most powerful lighthouses along the Mediterranean coast, and a chapel that marks a centuries-old pilgrimage site. Broad stone benches invite you to take in the views of the peninsula and the mountainous hinterland beyond the coast. Even though it’s a popular area for picnickers and walkers, there’s a relaxing feeling of peace under the pines. It seemed the moment to tuck into the boar sausage I’d bought from the Corsicans.

Peace is something you won’t find a lot of in Juan-les-Pins, but perhaps that’s what makes it such a good neighbour for Antibes. Juan-les-Pins buzzes during the summer season, its long beaches and pontoons blazing with the colours of thousands of sun loungers and parasols. It gets noisier every July during Jazz à Juan, which is Europe’s oldest jazz festival. But even when music isn’t filling the summer air, the streets throng with people eating on the palm-shaded restaurant terraces until the early hours. It’s like a civilised version of Ibiza.

Not everyone wants a party, though, and I was happy to enter the tranquil Hotel Sainte-Valérie. This former religious school is a Provençal oasis, elegant in shades of ochre and terracotta, its private garden big enough for cooling palms and a pool. Yet it’s less than a 10-minute slow amble back to the seafront.

There’s a certain bling you can’t escape on the Riviera, but unlike Cannes, this peninsula doesn’t feel as if it has sold out to the highest bidder. There’s a line attributed to Graham Greene about Antibes being the only town on the Côte d’Azur not to have lost its soul. Whether he said it doesn’t really matter; it has the ring of truth.

Travel essentials

Getting there

* The nearest airport to Antibes is Nice, served by easyJet (0871 244 2377; easyjet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Buses to Antibes cost €8 each way and take about 35 minutes.

Getting around

* Holiday Bikes (00 33 4 93 61 51 51; holiday-bikes.com) scooter hire from €39 a day.

Staying there

* HomeAway Holiday Rentals (holiday-rentals.co.uk) offers two seafront studio flats from €130 per night with a minimum three-night stay; the property code is 83543.

* Hotel Sainte-Valérie, Rue de l’Oratoire, Juan-les-Pins (00 33 4 93 61 07 15; juanlespins.net) has doubles from €180 per night, with breakfast extra at €20.

Visiting there

* Picasso Museum, Chateau Grimaldi (00 33 4 92 90 54 20) is open daily except Monday; times vary according to season, admission €6.

* Bar Absinthe, 25 Bis Cours Masséna (00 33 4 93 34 93 00).

More information

antibes-juanlespins.com

uk.franceguide.com


DSC00477Montenegro: High times for Balkan hikers

A new walking holiday explores the mountains that loom over Montenegro’s fast-developing coastline.

The Independent
Published: Saturday, 21 August 2010

 

Even in Montenegro’s land of giants, I was bowled over by the height of the policeman who sauntered into Caffè Lazaret on the quayside in Petrovac. He was at least six foot eight, his shoulders almost broad enough to warrant walking in sideways. A one-man crime deterrent, I thought, as he responded courteously to my “dobro vece” (good evening). Montenegro may be one of the smallest countries in Europe, but it does pack in some of the tallest people on the continent. And some of the friendliest.

Montenegro was new to me, but some time back in the 13th century, my father’s side of our Serbian family originated here. The height gene obviously survived the centuries: my dad, at six foot tall, was the runt of the family.

The Montenegrins’ great height is a good match for the scale of the mountains that dominate the interior and hover over the jagged coastline of curving bays and wooded headlands. It’s almost enough to distract you from the fact that Montenegro’s coast has become one long building site. It seems that everyone wants to buy a piece of this beautiful sweep of land and build a resort on it.

The nation’s best-known landmark is the village of Sveti Stefan, whose 15th-century cottages form a bright terracotta circle on the tip of a narrow isthmus. Yet when I was there it was closed in order to be converted into Amanresorts’ latest complex. And in the main resort of Budva, I could see cranes everywhere and shells of hotels to come, the Venetian old town just visible on a small promontory.

But it was the mountains rather than the beaches that were the attraction for me as I joined HF Holidays’ inaugural walking trip in Montenegro. The tour leader, Freddie Daniel, had wisely ditched the original plan of basing the tour in crane-filled Budva. Instead, we were to spend the week at the attractive – and smaller – Petrovac, which lay 15km further south. Aside from the world’s biggest policeman, Petrovac has a large public beach with lively café terraces, pretty stone houses and a miniature 16th-century Venetian fort guarding a tiny harbour. We were fussed over by the friendly and helpful staff at the Hotel Rivijera, a taste of the warmth to come from a naturally hospitable nation.

A 20-minute drive up to the Pastrovici mountains north of Petrovac took us to our first walk. A stony path led through woods filled with wildflowers – including tiny, delicate orchids – with sage perfuming the air. Barren mountains rose in the distance as we ascended and reached a small restored chapel marooned in the stone remains of a hamlet.

About an hour later we encountered a magnificently bearded monk. Along with an assistant, he was in charge of Sveti Spiridon, the smallest monastery I’ve ever seen; a donkey and two dogs were the only other residents. I warned the monk’s colleague that groups of British people would be tramping past the monastery every week during the walking season. “Odlicno!” he said. Excellent! That was the general reaction from people in isolated hamlets, when they came across our strange caravan of people as we trooped along tracks meant for mules. “Are you Russian? German?” they asked. “British, but my parents are Serbian,” I’d say. “Odlicno!” was the immediate response. “Stop and have a coffee.”

Strong Turkish coffee, followed by a shot of rakija (brandy), was definitely the thing I needed after the second day’s walk. The weather had turned nasty as we headed towards Europe’s southernmost fjord, in the Bay of Kotor. We started in the hamlet of Gornja Lastva on the Tivat peninsula, which overlooks the Adriatic as well as the frighteningly short runway of Tivat airport. Even the darkening sky couldn’t mask the beauty of the old stone houses and the 14th-century church of Sveta Marija.

As we walked past cypress trees and into the clouds, the view of the sea became a memory until we reached the ridge and arrived at a fierce-looking fortress built by the Austrian army in the 19th century.

The Austrians’ zig-zagging road down to the Bay of Kotor was a feat of engineering I could only grudgingly admire as we made our descent in the rain, on what had become a broken, overgrown and sodden path. Eventually, the sky cleared marginally and I could see Kotor on the far side of the bay, its medieval walled town forming a triangle on the waterfront. Later in the week we would explore its enchanting tangle of streets and squares that resemble a more agreeably workaday version of Dubrovnik.

DSC00509The sun had returned in good time for an unforgettable walk in the Lake Skadar National Park the following day. Even before we reached the lake, we found ourselves walking in a magical green world of watermills, rocks covered in vivid moss and stone arched bridges that led to the hamlet of Poseljani. Our goal was the riverside village of Rijeka Crnojevica, where Vido the boatman was waiting with his little six-seater. He was to take us along the serpentine river that empties into Lake Skadar, the largest in the Balkans. As Vido quietly serenaded us with Montenegrin folk songs, we drifted on a still, glassy surface watching the resident herons, cormorants and grebes. The current picked up once we entered the lake, with Albania’s mountains clearly visible on the other side. As we drew closer to the jetty in Virpazar, Vido cut the engine so we could listen to the birds for a few peaceful minutes.

More good weather was in store for a later walk that took us to the mountains overlooking the southern coastal town of Bar. As we wandered through olive groves that grew in rocky terraces on the hillsides, I could see things taking on a more eastern hue. Tiny family cemeteries had Muslim headstones; mosques replaced Orthodox churches. The cobbled street leading to the ruins of the old town (Stari Bar) looked distinctly Ottoman.

We stopped for a drink in Kaldrma, a restaurant with the sort of naturally rustic look that would have had interior designers drooling. It didn’t serve alcohol, but the juice from mountain berries made a fine substitute for the Montenegrin beer we’d previously enjoyed.

The week’s highlight was intended to be a walk in Mount Lovcen national park, home to King Petar II’s dramatic mausoleum that somehow perches on a narrow peak at 1,657m. Unseasonably late snow prevented us from climbing to the mausoleum, and even cut short our walk lower down as it didn’t occur to anyone to bring snowshoes.

The hair-raising drive back to Petrovac took us down countless hairpin bends that led down to the Bay of Kotor. Along the way is Kafana kod Pera na Bukovicu, the oldest bar in the region, which has been running since 1881. Its morose elderly owner looked as if he’d been there from the beginning, barely acknowledging our presence and grudgingly bringing us Turkish coffee. Either he was having a bad day, or we managed to meet the only unfriendly person in Montenegro. But he certainly didn’t dent my appreciation of this country’s astonishing landscape.

Travel essentials: Montenegro
Getting there

* The writer travelled with HF Holidays (0845 470 7558; hfholidays.co.uk), which offers a seven-night walking holiday in Montenegro from £659 per person. This includes return flights with British Airways to Dubrovnik from Gatwick, half-board accommodation at the four-star Hotel Rivijera in Petrovac and five guided walks.
* Local transport is an extra €71. *Dubrovnik is also served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com).
More information
* National Tourism Organisation of Montenegro: 00 382 20 235 155; montenegro.travel




AB3_3664Warmth and cuisine make up for Pyrenees’ lack altitude and plentiful snow

The Independent, Published: Saturday 16 January 2010


A scene from White Christmas flashed through my head as the train sped through France towards the Pyrenees. Just as Bing Crosby and chums sang in anticipation of snow in Vermont, I was hoping against hope that the forecast for rain in the Pyrenees would be wrong and that white fluffy stuff would magically appear in its place. Like Bing, I would be disappointed. You can’t take plentiful snow for granted in the Pyrenees. It hasn’t got the altitude and enviable snow record of the Alps. But, for the average visitor, it has ways of making up for that.

St-Lary Soulan was my base, one of the liveliest and most attractive of the nine resorts in the Hautes-Pyrénées department, its centre filled with pretty stone houses and half-timbered shops. The village meanders along the river Aure, its rocky banks and surrounding hills reminding me of Snowdonia. I think that perception was helped by the lack of snow on the hills and quite a lot of rain.

A bad cold left me unable to ski for the first couple of days, which coincided with balmy weather in the village. As I downed medicinal vin chaud outside the funky Izard Café Central, the thermometer read 15C. Strong winds had shut most of the runs at St-Lary’s highest ski station at 2,400m, leaving many of those who had arrived for a week of pre-new year’s eve festivities to throng the streets.

DSC00014For a village of about 1,100 people, St-Lary Soulan is well stocked with restaurants, cafés and shops. Most sell decently priced ski wear and local produce plus soft toys celebrating the region’s favourite animals: bears and marmots. While the real marmots were busy hibernating, the village’s resident bear was on show at the Maison de l’Ours. If you can stomach the rather high entrance fee of €6.50, you can visit the burly creature and watch a film about the local wildlife. Personally, I think the fee is better put towards a dish of duck confit at La Maison du Cassoulet on rue Vincent Mir.

The weather was creating havoc, though. Last month, St-Lary opened a new cable car that surpasses the old gondola as the fastest way to get from the village’s 800m elevation to the first ski station at Pla d’Adet at 1,600m. It is also designed to cut down on car journeys, since the resort is keen to minimise its environmental impact. Unfortunately, the wind shut the cable car too, so I joined the long queue for the gondola to Pla d’Adet.

It was a sorry sight under stony skies. People were gamely walking over the bare ground and muddy patches towards the pistes, which normally would have been wide motorway runs. Broad streaks of brown earth separated the pistes, narrowing them considerably.

I took the free bus to Espiaube at 1,900m where I was hoping to get another cable car up to 2,400m. That was shut too. I could just about make out the half-pipe, devoid of snow. Strangely, this didn’t seem to bother most people, especially the little ones. The bottom of the slope had been turned into an anarchic toboggan run, children joyfully flinging themselves down the hill while their parents stoically carried them back up again. They weren’t going to let something as trivial as a lack of snow spoil their ski holiday.

Indeed, making the most of the conditions seems to be an inevitable part of vacances here. The overwhelming majority of visitors are French, who regard the mountain range as their local playground, and drop by for a spot of skiing whatever the weather. Spaniards make up the next biggest group – not surprising, considering the border is only 15km away and the Spanish resorts are more expensive than their French counterparts. In fact, the Spanish flavour adds a pleasant dimension to St-Lary. Most of the bars offer tapas, and Spanish, rather than English, is the second language. Many of the region’s inhabitants are descendants of refugees from the Spanish civil war, so restaurant and shop staff switch easily between the two languages.

Eventually, I was well enough to check out the skiing for myself, zooming up the new cable car to Pla d’Adet on the last day of the year. The sun had returned, even if the snow hadn’t, and you can forgive a lot of things when the sky is blue. The snow cannons had kept the pistes in decent condition, and there were more patches of soft snow than I had envisaged. There were long queues too, as the higher slopes were shut again. But it didn’t spoil the warm and friendly atmosphere. More warmth was awaiting in the Bergerie mountainside restaurant in the form of big bowls of cassoulet.

Even if the skiing was under par, you couldn’t fault the food. There were the usual mountain cheesy favourites (fondue, tartiflette, raclette), best enjoyed at the restaurant La Tute in rue Vincent Mir (book ahead) or at L’Authentique Vignecois in neighbouring Vignec. The south-western French penchant for duck stretches into the Pyrenees, and the mountain range adds its own specialities in the form of Bigorre black pig and garbure, a thick soup of bacon, cabbage and whatever else is lying around.

The lack of snow over New Year meant families had to entertain their children once the thrills of tobogganing had worn off. St-Lary, unlike many Pyrenean towns, doesn’t have its own natural thermal springs, but it makes up for it in the wellness centre at Sensoria. While children splash about the cave-like interior under shooting jets, parents can relax in the large thermal baths. A warning for men: if you don’t own the tight swimming trunks the French demand in public pools, you have to stump up €12 for a pair at reception. No such restrictions were in place in the pool and hot tub in my residence at Lagrange’s L’Ardoisière, which was close to my spacious flat.

So if the skiing leaves a lot to be desired and the weather is so changeable, is it worth it? Those who want snow-sure conditions in their ski-in, ski-out chalets should stick to the Alps. If skiing takes second place to a friendly atmosphere, atractive landscapes, gorgeous cuisine and a lack of pretension, try the Pyrenees. But you may like to book late to make sure of snow.

Travel essentials: St-Lary

Getting there

The writer booked train tickets with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), which offers return fares from London St Pancras to Tarbes from £110 per person. The nearest airports are at Tarbes and Pau, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), and at Toulouse, served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com). A free shuttle bus runs from Pau and Tarbes airports every Saturday timed with the Ryanair flights.

Staying there

A one-bedroom flat at the Lagrange Prestige residence L’Ardoisière (020-7371 6111;lagrange-holidays.co.uk ), sleeping four, ranges from £271 per week in low season to £892 per week during February half-term. Equipment can be hired through Intersport from £66 per person per week. A six-day adult lift pass costs from €149-€165.

More information

St-Lary tourist office: 00 33 562 395 081; saintlary.com. Hautes-Pyrénées tourism: 00 33 562 567 000; tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com.





Milwaukee 1Out of the Drink

Once famous for its beer, Milwaukee has recast itself as a haven for foodies. Mary Novakovich investigates

New Statesman, Published: 5 February 2009

I met the Fonz, once, back in 1988. Nice chap, that Henry Winkler, quite short, very affable, a bit nervous because he was about to premiere the first feature film he had directed. Twenty years later, I was standing beside his newly commemorated statue in Milwaukee, the setting for the much-loved US 1970s sitcom Happy Days and proud “birthplace” of Arthur Fonzarelli, America’s favourite short, leather-clad Fifties throwback.

The statue isn’t quite life-size: it’s shorter than I am and Winkler and I are the same height. What was also unexpected was the attractive riverside setting for the statue, which was officially unveiled last summer. Not in a Fifties-style burger bar, and not associated with any of the conventional images of a brewery town such as Milwaukee, where the lead ladies of the Happy Days offshoot Laverne and Shirley used to bottle some of America’s weakest beer. So did my late uncle, at the Schlitz brewery, an establishment so mediocre that it deserved its nickname of Schitz. Its official slogan was “The beer that made Milwaukee famous”. “Infamous” was my thought when I first tasted it years ago.

Schlitz was bought out in 1982, and its old brewery became a business park. Pabst, also founded in Milwaukee in the 19th century and maker of the official beer of American GIs during the Second World War, has been swallowed up by the brewing giant Miller. Its enormous derelict building is awaiting a very expensive transformation into shops, restaurants and offices. Now the only major brewery left is Miller, and although it produces beer that’s just about palatable, it hardly compares to the high-quality stuff that Europeans are used to.

When the breweries started to disappear, this once-thriving city on the western shore of Lake Michigan began to lose its soul. Unemployment hit astonishing levels, surpassed only by Detroit, where a house recently sold for all of $1. Slowly, however, things started to perk up. Milwaukee’s backbone had always been its German community, which gave the city its culinary focus: cheese, and lots of it. Followed by bratwurst. And knockwurst. And sauerkraut. And spätzle, those little dumplings Brits tuck in to when skiing in Austria. Along the Milwaukee River is the Old German Beer Hall, which offers a lunchtime special of bratwurst, sauerkraut, spätzle and a beer (brewed to a 400-year-old Bavarian recipe, apparently) for $5. Who needs McDonald’s when you can eat like a kaiser?

With the loss of the major breweries, Milwaukee had to do something to keep its metropolitan population of 1.4 million going. A microbrewery, the Lakefront, opened on the lake shore in 1987, and its classy beers quickly found their way into many of Milwaukee’s bars. The city fell back on its rich culinary heritage and unselfconsciously reinvented itself as a foodie town. It didn’t have to work too hard in that regard: it already had the meat and cheese.

The lake front, where Lake Michigan is so vast that it resembles the sea, has become a waterside playground and less of the no-go area it used to be. Rebranding is everywhere: the riverside is now Riverwalk, where public art sits easily beside the renovated 19th-century industrial buildings. Third Street along the river is now Old World Third Street, home to restaurants and bars (including the Old German Beer Hall). Former warehouses converted into lofts typify the Historic Third Ward. It’s a very pleasant downtown area in which to stroll, made more human by the scarcity of skyscrapers thanks to the city’s sandy foundations. You can see the sky without craning your neck.

DSC01735I headed down to the lake front to stare at the Milwaukee Art Museum with its audacious birdlike pavilion, a structure designed by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava which opened in 2001. Within minutes, a fanfare sounded on the hidden loudspeakers and the graceful “wings” slowly opened and closed. Nice touch, one that I wasn’t quite expecting.

Yet what really took me by surprise was what Guinness World Records calls the world’s biggest music festival. I thought I was familiar with all the major musical events, but Summerfest was news to me. It has been going since the 1960s and its 12 music and comedy stages take over the lake front for 11 days every late June/early July. The line-up, admittedly, is hardly edgy: American stalwarts such as Tom Petty, Cheap Trick and Kansas rub shoulders with stars of the UK revival scene (Eric Burdon, the Zombies) as well as artists actually from this century (Gnarls Barkley, Alicia Keys, Plain White T’s). But the festival has been one of the major players in the rejuvenation of Milwaukee.

Summerfest’s organiser, the then mayor, Henry W Maier, was inspired to create his festival after visiting Oktoberfest. His vision was to bring together and celebrate Milwaukee’s many ethnic groups, but it hasn’t quite turned out that way. The city’s Germans, Italians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Irish, among others, have their own festivals, most of which take their turn filling lakeside venues with the sounds and flavours of their respective mother countries.

If you want real unity in Milwaukee, you will need to experience a tradition many are convinced is unique to the city: the Friday fish fry. The Catholic ritual of not eating meat on a Friday has mushroomed into a weekly seafood binge. For less than $10, restaurants offer a menu consisting of cod, perch, pike or other local fare, plus generous side dishes. No wonder it’s so popular with family groups.

You can find a Friday fish fry in most restaurants, regardless of the cuisine. One of the best in the city, I’m told by my less-than-objective Serbian-American cousins, is at the Serb Hall next door to St Sava Cathedral, handily located a stone’s throw from my aunt’s house. The queue going out the door showed that its popularity wasn’t limited to the Serbian community. The fish was delicious, as were the goulash and cabbage rolls the carnivorous (and non-Catholic) Serbs couldn’t help but include in the buffet.

It was the perfect back-to-basics way to deal with the gloomy financial situation, which was getting worse by the minute. Comforting peasant food had never tasted so good. Perhaps some clever person should market the fish that made Milwaukee famous.




livignoThis cut-price ski resort doesn’t skimp on quality

Mary Novakovich keeps it cheap and remains cheerful in the Italian Alps

The Independent on Sunday, Published 8 March 2009

“This had better be good.” My husband had passed the gritted-teeth stage and was into full snarling mode. We had been sitting in a makeshift car park for an hour and a half, waiting to pass through a single-lane tunnel from Switzerland to Italy. So were 100 other cars, impatient to get to Livigno, Italy’s most remote and cheapest ski resort. “It’ll be like a stag night in Prague,” my husband continued. “If it’s that cheap, you can imagine how horrible it could be.”

After driving for six hours, and paying a €25 (£22) toll for the world’s most annoying tunnel, I was in no mood to be optimistic either. Thanks to a historical quirk, Livigno, in the Valtellina valley near the Swiss border by St Moritz, is duty free.

This instantly slashes 20 per cent off the cost of most things – from cigarettes (€21 per carton) and booze (4.5 litres of whisky for €46) to restaurant meals and ski lift passes and equipment. We could all do with a bargain right now, but I was also worried the place might be a bit tacky, unredeemed by its high altitude (1,800-3,000m), Alpine location and great snow record.

Finally, we arrived in the town just after dusk. I could see fairy lights sparkling in the snow, and the slanted Alpine roofs were covered in a fresh foot of the white stuff. We were just in time for the passeggiata on the Via Plan, the attractive pedestrianised town centre. It was a scene worthy of our tedious effort.

Soon we were tucking into big plates of pasta at the lively yet cosy Albergo Bivio. The hearty local speciality, pizzocheri, made of buckwheat pasta with potatoes, cabbage and taleggio cheese, was just the thing on a cold night. Two courses, aperitifs, wine and coffees came to €56, our most expensive meal of the week. If this was to be a credit-crunch ski break, we’d have to cut back, with the euro roughly equal to the pound.

The Hotel Alpina in the town centre put us up in its new apartments on Via Teola, perched on a hill about a 15-minute walk away. It’s a bit of a climb, but the reward is a broad view of the village and two of Livigno’s four ski areas. We could easily see what the conditions were and which were open. Among its 115km of runs, Livigno has excellent beginner and intermediate pistes, most of which are perfect for long cruising runs, and its snow park is regarded as the best in Italy. It doesn’t have many black runs, however, but as I’m only a low-intermediate skier and my husband is a beginner snowboarder, this suited us fine.

Our young instructors Dmitri and Hansel gave us an entertaining introduction to the slopes, their enthusiasm for their hometown infectious. Soon we were on long red runs that gave us sweeping views of the mountains and the valley below. Most pistes are the wide motorway runs that keep timid skiers like me happy, but there are a few that wind their way through the woods and offer more of a challenge.

Snow was falling gently, but that didn’t stop us from eating lunch outside. Two meals at La Grolla near the ski school cost €23, which became the average for lunch and dinner. I had visited an inexpensive French Alpine resort only weeks before, and Livigno won hands down on the food and drink front. The nightlife was better too, with plenty of après-ski bars in town as well as on the mountain.

And, unlike many resorts in Italy where the lift systems leave a lot to be desired, Livigno is constantly improving itself. This is largely because the ski areas are owned by rival families, and competition is fierce. If one side brings in a heated chair lift, the other side responds with a new cable car. The skier is the ultimate winner, because the lift pass covers the entire valley. This resort may be a budget-beater, but its facilities certainly aren’t bargain basement.

Compact facts

How to get there

Mary Novakovich travelled with Inghams (020-8780 4444; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights’ half-board at the Hotel Alpina from £738 per person, including return Gatwick flights to Brescia and transfers. A Ski Saver Pack costs from £175 per person, which includes a six-day lift pass, equipment hire and three days’ tuition. Carrentals (carrentals.co.uk) offers seven-day car rental from £85.

Further information: Livigno tourism (livigno.eu).




BelgradeBelgrade lightens up

Returning to the Serbian capital, Mary Novakovich finds that the weather is a hotter topic than politics

New Statesman: Published: 31 July 2008

Summer in Belgrade, where temperatures can nudge 40°C, means bagging a spot on the beach – a real beach, not like the temporary one in Paris along the banks of the Seine. In the middle of the Sava, one of Belgrade’s two rivers, is Ada Ciganlija, an island on which the authorities cleverly constructed a beach complete with bars, restaurants, sunloungers, water sports, pedal boats and safe bathing areas for children. It is also one of the places where Radovan Karadzic, the recently arrested Bosnian Serb ex-leader, gave talks on alternative medicine while he was hiding, in plain sight of the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Not, of course, that my mother, my aunt and I know this when we are cooling off under a parasol at Ada Ciganlija several weeks earlier. I have come to Belgrade to visit relatives and we are resting in between bouts of splashing about in the water, spotting the occasional school of minnows zooming past. Later we have lunch at the Safari restaurant, a cosy wooden construction that sits on its own lake and is surrounded by a tiny zoo. As we watch the swans and cygnets cruise by, we get stuck in to plates of grilled meats and cold beer on the terrace.

It’s the first time my mother, who lives in Canada, and I have ever managed to be in Belgrade at the same time, and I insist on picking up the tab. Lunch for three is less than £20. My aunt has stopped looking miffed that she didn’t have the chance to feed me once again, and my mother has agreed that time off from the constant round of visiting relatives has been a good idea. We’d already been to six sets of relations in a day and a half and had eaten astonishing amounts of delicious food (locally grown and seasonal – they don’t do tasteless tomatoes in Serbia).

My mother hadn’t been back to Belgrade since 1980, the year Tito died, and I was recalling a visit I made just two years after Nato bombed the city in 1999. The bomb damage is still there, but it has become less defiantly symbolic and more an indication that no one has quite enough money to tear down the enormous ravaged buildings and start again. Apart from that, this vibrant city is booming. When I was there in 2001, you could hardly find a cashpoint; now you can see branches of major European banks, along with the big retailers you find elsewhere in Europe.

AB3_5082Knez Mihailova, a wide pedestrianised street full of shops and cafés in the attractive Old Town, is thronging with people enjoying the late-afternoon sun. It’s easy for them to do just that, as most Belgraders work from 8am to 4pm, leaving them at least another 12 hours in which to have a life. More cafés spill into nearby Republic Square, scene of the endless demonstrations against Slobodan Milosevic and still a major meeting place for Serbs to get their fix of fiendishly strong Turkish coffee. Along the Sava and Danube Rivers are floating bars and restaurants called splavovi, which used to be the hangouts of gangsters in the days when they could carry out murders and assassinations in broad daylight. But the undercurrent of criminality I felt in 2001 has dissipated; the country has been more successful in cracking down on organised crime than its neighbour Bulgaria, which recently had its European Union member funds suspended as a result.

The tourists are slow in coming back to Belgrade. You will find plenty of business people, though, as western investment comes flooding in. Over a leisurely evening meal in my cousin Tanja’s courtyard garden, her brother Boris asks why other former communist capitals such as Budapest and Prague are overrun with visitors, who seem to be bypassing Belgrade. “We’ve got the friendliest people in the world here and no one knows,” he said.

He is right about that, but what would happen if Belgrade were to become a stop on the cheap-flights route? (At the moment, return flights cost roughly between £160 and £180.) Hordes of British stag and hen parties would descend on the city and turn it into another Tallinn. They would rampage through the old bohemian quarter of Skadarlija and trip over the cobblestones before laying waste to its restaurants. They would tumble into the Danube or the Sava, or fall off the tower in Belgrade’s fortress that dates from Roman times. They would trash the café tables in Republic Square. “We wouldn’t mind,” says Boris. Oh, I think they would.

One thing Belgraders wouldn’t mind is easy transit the other way. EU citizens no longer have to apply for a visa to visit Serbia, but this has not been reciprocated. Leaving the Balkans involves a drawn-out and tedious process that deters most Serbian travellers. We have a heated discussion around the dinner table. “They make it so hard for us to leave the country,” says Tanja. “We hoped that Tadic would be elected and things could start to change.” But although President Boris Tadic has been able to deliver Karadzic to the UN war crimes court in The Hague – one of the conditions Serbia had to meet before the EU would discuss closer ties – he presides over an uneasy coalition between the pro-European Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia (former head, one Slobodan Milosevic).

We don’t stay on the subject of politics for too long. There are more important things to be discussed, such as episodes of Only Fools and Horses (a huge hit in Serbia), the renaissance of the Spanish national football team and the fact that Serbian tennis players are putting their country into the right sort of spotlight for the first time in two decades. It is a novelty to come across Serbian names in the press and not see them followed by the words “awaiting trial for war crimes”. Even the arrest of Karadzic didn’t remain the main topic of conversation too long in Belgrade’s cafes. I am told that, after the initial mix of euphoria (on the part of the sensible brigade) and disgust (on the part of those warped individuals who regard him as a hero), talk has reverted to the usual subjects: sports, holidays, the weather.

As EU members squabble over the Lisbon Treaty, Belgraders just want to live like other Europeans – whatever that might mean.




IMG_0218Snowboarding: A question of balance

Mary Novakovich heads to Austria for snowboarding lessons – and finds out whether she’s goofy or regular

The Independent, Published: Saturday 20 October 2007

Andy stepped behind me and gave me an abrupt push. “Regular,” he said as my left foot shot forward. He did the same to my husband. “Goofy,” he told him. Were these obscure reflections on our personalities, or did our Kaluma Travel rep have a Disney fixation? Neither, it was just a suitably weird introduction to the wondrous world of snowboarding.

My mind went back to the last Winter Olympics, in Turin, where the snowboarding competitors injected a much-needed shot of fun and coolness into the winter-sports scene. We’d been simultaneously amused by their look (surely they can’t ride with their trousers halfway down?) and enthralled by the dare-devil movements that looked much more thrilling than going downhill on two skis. We have to have a go at that, we’d told ourselves, rashly ignoring the fact that we were a good 20 years older than the average competitor.

Fast-forward and there we were in Lech am Arlberg, one of the most beautiful villages in Austria, a former haunt of Princess Diana and current favourite of the moneyed set. Its grown-up atmosphere would suit a couple of 42-year-olds better than some of the brasher and noisier resorts in the French Alps, we thought. As it sits at a height from 1,500m to 2,500m, it’s more likely than some parts of the Alps to have snow, and it has one of the best snowparks in Austria (for when boarders get good enough to do tricks).

DSC_0121But before we could do anything else, we had to get measured for our boots and boards at Sportalp, the equipment rental shop. (By the way, the ” regular” and “goofy” refer to which way you prefer to go down the slope – left foot forward, or right, respectively.) That’s when I discovered one of the advantages of boarding over skiing: it’s so much more convenient to sling your board under your arm as you walk along in soft boots. The coolness factor immediately goes up when you don’t have to trudge at an awkward angle.

Our instructor Gunnar, a friendly chap with a huge cheerful grin and the patience of a saint, took us to the neighbouring village of Zürs for our first lesson, as the nursery slope at Lech was too icy. Looking at the expanse of powder I was pleased, having been warned that the first few days of boarding involves falling on every part of the body imaginable.

The constant falling about didn’t bother our only other classmate. Nicolas was a sweet 13-year-old from Sao Paulo. He was the first to try new moves, the first to land on his bottom and the first to get up again and have another go. He was also the first to “slide” (going downhill facing either directly forwards or backwards) and to make any turns. My husband, who spent his adolescence on a skateboard, was the second to accomplish these moves. I, who last went downhill 22 years ago – on two skis, mind you – was the last one to let go of Gunnar’s hand. My normally competitive nature went into hibernation when I found that my goals would be achieved in much smaller steps than the others. Once I realised that, I began to enjoy myself.

After two days of following the same pattern – rubbish at the start, really quite good just before lunch, rubbish after lunch, low point mid-afternoon, rather good finish to the day – I was finding that progress was slow even by my standards. Nicolas had been sent off to higher group by day three, and Gunnar gave my husband the same option. Loyally he said he’d stick with me and add his encouragement, for I was turning into something of a coward.

My problem, quite simply, was an intense fear of falling. On skis you can fall towards the slope on your side. On a board you go either forwards (on your wrists, elbows, knees or nose) or backwards (on your bottom, wrists or head) while somersaulting with the board attached. Things weren’t helped by the state of the piste: the snow was packed hard instead of being covered with a nice soft powder to cushion the landing.

Still, other novices were coping quite well and I just had to get on with it. My goal by the end of day three was to do some turns, and this I managed to do – although they occurred on separate runs. I even got over my extreme annoyance at constantly being flung off the poma tow – surely the most sadistic piece of winter-sports equipment ever invented.

I was beginning to get to grips with the mechanics of boarding: slide on the heel-side edge while traversing the slope, shift your weight so the board goes flat and you go downhill, go on the toe-side edge while traversing again and repeat until you fall down at the bottom of the slope. Or, in my case, do all of the above but hold on to your instructor’s hand until you finally get the courage to do a turn on your own – usually right at the bottom where it’s almost flat. “Don’t worry, Maria,” Gunnar reassured me. “See? You’re barely holding on to my hand. You’re doing most of it on your own.”

The ice bar at the Tannbergerhof Hotel became our daily haunt, where a beer and a schnapps went hand in hand with gawping at spectacularly badly dressed people and listening to Shakira howl at full volume. We would take our slightly tipsy selves back to our cosy and delightful hotel, the Kristiania, where the whirlpool in the downstairs spa awaited us with its soothing hot jets. When the booze wore off the muscular aches kicked in and we amiably compared our bruises.

Once we rediscovered the art of walking upright, we would relax in the Kristiania’s intimate and comfortable bar and then sit down to one of their exquisite five-course dinners. Or we would head into town for a drink at the trendy Schneggarei bar that sits at the bottom of one of the main slopes, followed by hefty dose of bratwürst and sauerkraut.

DSC_0154One night we were lucky enough to witness the monthly outdoor show put on by the ski school of Lech. An enormous projection screen was set up in the centre of the village, which showed archive footage of Lech in the 1920s when the village was a pioneer in winter sports. The ski-school instructors then came down the slope in an enchanting torchlight procession, followed by a few of their number showing off boarding tricks and carving turns (including our very own Gunnar). This we watched clutching our glasses of gluhwein as the party atmosphere grew and the singing started.

Scenes such as this increased my warm feelings towards Lech. Yes, it’s an expensive place, but the tourist office, shop assistants and bar staff are unfailingly friendly and eager to please, regardless of the labels (or lack of them) covering your clothes.

It will certainly provide a marked contrast to the next time I get on a snowboard to work on what I’ve learnt before I forget everything: Milton Keynes’s indoor snow slope, here we come.

Traveller’s guide

Getting there
The writer travelled with Kaluma Travel (0870 442 8044; www.kalumatravel.co.uk), which offers seven nights’ B&B accommodation at the four-star Hotel Kristiania from £1,385 per person based on two people sharing. This includes return scheduled flights and private transfers; the price is reduced if travelling via Ryanair. The closest airports to Lech are Zurich, which is served by Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Innsbruck, which is served by Austrian (0870 124 2625; www.aua.com) and British Airways; and Friedrichshafen in Germany, which is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).

Eating and drinking there
Hotel Kristiania, Omesberg 31 (00 43 5583 25610; www.kristiania.at). Tannbergerhof Hotel (00 43 5583 2202; www.tannbergerhof.com). Schneggarei (00 43 5583 39888; www.schneggarei.at).

Equipment/lessons
Sportalp (00 43 5583 2110; www.sportalp.at) offers seven days’ board hire from €159 (£110) per person and boot hire for €65 (£43). Lech Ski School (00 43 5583 2355; www.skilech.info) offers a range of group lessons, including one day at €52 (£36) per person and seven days at €181 (£126) in low season. Family tickets are available.

More information: Lech-Zürs Tourism (00 43 5583 21610; www.lech-zuers.at).




SicilyA walk on the wide side of Sicily

Undaunted either by Mafia jokes or Europe’s largest active volcano, Mary Novakovich sets off on a walking holiday in Sicily that leaves her captivated, if a little breathless

The Independent, Published: 10 June 2006

Mario Puzo has a lot to answer for. I’d had enough of people saying to me “So did you get an offer you couldn’t refuse?” at the mention of a visit to Sicily. Out came the usual jokes of horses’ heads and sleeping fishes. But I did get an offer I couldn’t refuse: an unusual way of seeing what the Mediterranean’s largest island had to offer a walking and food enthusiast who was almost as in the dark as her Godfather-obsessed friends.

The plan was to combine independent walking in more remote parts of the north-western side of the island with a more traditional guided tour of the region around Sicily’s biggest landmark, Mount Etna. Our first stop, Scopello, was just over the next headland from Palermo airport, on the Golfo di Castellemmare. It’s more a hamlet than a village, with a handful of cafés and restaurants with terraces looking out over the Tyrrhenian Sea. As it was one of Italy’s many public holidays, people were thronging Scopello’s medieval baglio – a fortified courtyard now with filled with shops and restaurants – making it look like a particularly lively film set.

The baglio principle was applied to our own hotel, the Tenuta Plaia agriturismo, which sits a couple of hundred metres outside Scopello, facing the sea. It’s only two years old, but it already has a claim to fame: Brad Pitt stayed here while filming Ocean’s Twelve. More impressive, however, was the warm welcome offered by the owner, Cinzia, and her restaurant manager who guided us through our first Sicilian dinner.

The antipasti showed what magic can be created by a caring chef: octopus, caponata (fried aubergines and artichokes), frittata of broad beans and more artichokes. The choice of pasta dish (tagliatelli with cuttlefish ink or ravioli with pistachio sauce) looked too tasty to narrow down, so we had a bit of both. And then came mixed grilled meat. It was a top-class introduction to Sicilian cuisine.

DSC_0164The first chance to walk off the big meal came the next morning with a 12km trek through the neighbouring Riserva dello Zingaro. This nature reserve is the first in Italy, and came about only when plans were afoot to build a motorway through this stretch of coastline. The locals reacted in typical Italian fashion: they went on strike until the plans were dropped. It was the right decision, of course, as the 1,600-hectare reserve is a haven for birds such as Bonelli’s eagles and peregrine falcons. After a 30-minute climb of several hundred metres along a stony, meandering path you reach one of the many peaks that reward you with captivating views of the sea and the many coves tucked into the coastline. One of the coves made an attractive spot for our lunch of panini we bought from a café in Scopello.

It seemed as if we had barely arrived in Sicily that we were leaving “the mainland” for a couple of days in Marettimo, the westernmost island of the Egadi archipelago, an hour’s hydrofoil journey from the coastal town of Trapani. Fulvio was waiting for us with a golf cart. “I’ll take the bags and you walk to the residence,” he said. “You can’t miss it.” His little joke, we gathered. Marettimo has one village, one road and only a few dozen families. The island’s only hotel (well, self-catering residence, really) was clearly visible from the other side of the tiny harbour.

It was as if we had arrived in a Tunisian toytown. As Marettimo is closer to Africa than it is to mainland Europe, it was appropriate to see two-storey white houses with blue shutters and doors lining the quayside. The Marettimo Residence re-creates the local style, with clusters of white houses with private terraces flanked by trellises covered with bougainvillaea. We surveyed the well-equipped kitchen and immediately went shopping. You don’t turn down the chance to do some self-catering in Italy – not with the quality of tomatoes, cheese and olives on offer in the local shop.

The village of Marettimo sits on the island’s sunny eastern side, the only inhabited part of the island. The rest consists of peaks as high as 680m, forests and footpaths of varying difficulty. As we discovered later, we made the first-time visitor’s classic mistake of assuming that a coastal walk to an abandoned castle at Punta Troia wouldn’t take more than an hour. Wrong. Although it was worth the effort in the end, we hadn’t been quite prepared for the three-hour walk on a path that was precipitous in places as it hugged the side of the cliff.

We were better prepared for the next day’s walk. A stone path made its steep way just behind the village straight up to the Roman ruins that make up Case Romane, and a Byzantine chapel, whose domed interior was covered in graffiti in defiance of the sign imploring visitors not to write on the walls. Another path then led through an enchanting forest of Aleppo pines and on hillsides smothered with prickly pear and bright blankets of valerian and calendula. After an hour or so, we reached a forest rangers’ stone hut at Carcaredda. From there it was an extremely rocky and crumbling road down to Plaia Nacchi, an inviting cove that required a walk along a path that was barely a foot wide with a sheer drop to the sea. We had seen hardly a soul, except for an old gent who approached us just as we were starting our walk. “You must be the journalist visiting us,” he smiled at me. “I’ve got a boat if you want a tour of the island.” I thanked him for his kindness, but explained we were off on a walk. No problem, he beamed. Buona giornata!

That evening, Fausto, the owner of our residence, invited all of his guests to join him for dinner in the communal dining room. Spit-roasted suckling pig, he announced proudly. It turned into a very convivial evening, the flowing wine enhancing our wonderfully relaxed mood. Not that relaxing is hard to do in Marettimo. The pace of the island dictates that everything slows down, from the time it takes to knock back your espresso to the time spent chatting to shop owners about the food you’re buying.

Time to return to the modern world. Dragged like the lotus-eating members of Ulysses’ crew we got back on the hydrofoil and were driven to Palermo to catch the coach to Catania on the other side of Sicily. If you want a jolting return to reality, spend an hour in a Palermo traffic jam (missing your coach in the process). But a two-and-a-half hour ride through the hinterland of Sicily soon restored our equilibrium. Sicily is one big volcanic outcrop, covered mostly in mountainous landscapes that are more dramatic than even the wildest British moor.

It was going get even more spectacular, with Etna as our destination. It’s Europe’s largest active volcano, clearly visible from the window of our room at Case Perrotta, our agriturismo in the foothills in Sant’Alfio. There we joined a party of 12 British walkers who were led by our delightful guide Elena, a bubbly 30-year-old from Taormina. They were beginning a gentler itinerary than the one we’d just left. That meant visiting Etna by minibus, cable car, then another, tougher minibus to reach almost 3,000m from sea level.

DSC_0420Yes, it was easier, but walking up Etna without some winter gear (which we hadn’t brought) would have been foolhardy. The air was bitterly cold and snow was still on the ground – a surreal sight on the black lava that was still warm, even hot, in places. Sulphur mingled with the clouds that swirled around us as we walked around the crater. Initially I thought that the clouds obscuring the view would make the trip less enthralling, but I hadn’t reckoned on the haunting and mesmerising atmospheric created by Etna.

After almost a week spent on coastal paths and mountains, it was almost a shock to end the trip in Sicily’s most famous and terribly chic resort, Taormina. First we had a walk up several hundred metres to the neighbouring hilltop village of Castelmora, had a quick swig of the local almond wine in a bar that specialised in displaying statues of male genitalia and admired the winding medieval streets. We walked back down towards Taormina via the Saracen castle that gives you a superb view of the town’s Greco-Roman theatre – an odd sight as the Romans thoughtlessly filled in the spaces between the old Greek columns. Luckily for us, the brick walls are crumbling, exposing the original view of the sea.

A few hours were spent strolling through the main thoroughfare, Corso Umberto, swarming with holidaying Italians (on yet another public holiday) before we squeezed through its choked streets back to the tranquillity of Case Perrotta and another enjoyable meal with our entertaining and congenial travelling companions. Crowds or no crowds, Sicily offered me an experience I’m glad I didn’t refuse.

Traveller’s Guide

Getting there

The writer travelled with Headwater (08700 662650; www.headwater.com). Its Islands of Sicily Walk is an eight-day independent, intermediate walking holiday taking in Scopello, Marettimo, Erice and San Vito Lo Capo. Prices from £819 per person including return scheduled flights to Palermo, transfers, breakfast and most dinners. The eight-day Best of Sicily Walk, a gentler guided tour, begins in Mount Etna and continues to Siracusa, Ispica and Noto Antico. Prices from £949 including flights to Catania, transfers, breakfast and all evening meals. Taking the two tours back to back costs from £1,599 per person.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has direct flights to Palermo. Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.co.uk) has flights to Palermo (via Rome) and to Catania (via Milan). British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has direct flights to Catania.




FerrariSuffolk looks different from inside a Ferrari

It’s a motoring fantasy. Take a mean machine for a spin around the countryside and pull up at a genteel hotel. Did Mary Novakovich dare push the accelerator?

The Independent on Sunday, Published: 10 October 2004

It’s a wonderfully nostalgic idea, isn’t it, driving through country lanes in a vintage car, admiring the autumnal landscape of brilliantly coloured leaves. Perhaps you’d be in a Mark II Jaguar like Inspector Morse, a Mozart opera on the stereo as you contemplate stopping by a thatched village pub, just enjoying the Englishness of it all. Or you could throw British reserve to the winds and hurtle through sleepy hamlets in a 1977 red Ferrari 308 GTB, its V8 engine raising a right old ruckus in the well-ordered Suffolk countryside. What a choice to have to make.

The Grand Touring Club has a rich selection of classic cars to choose from which you can combine with a few nights in various hotels in East Anglia. Once we had seen the different MGs, Triumphs, Porsches and Jags on offer, we realised that the only car we were never likely to find ourselves in was a Ferrari. We had to go for the 308 GTB, even if it conjured up memories of Tom Selleck’s tash in Magnum PI. It was so low it barely reached my waist. As I struggled in I wished I’d had some Lucie Clayton-style lessons in getting in a sport car gracefully.

When I saw the car’s controls and heard the complicated instructions from the club’s Tom Brimblecombe, I was relieved that I wasn’t going to be its main driver. That responsibility fell to my husband Adam, who has been driving for more than 20 years and even did the Advanced Driving Test. Then we were told that the security deposit required by the insurance company was £1,500 and we both turned a bit pale. No pressure there, then. Just as well we didn’t go for the Aston Martin DB6, which could have dented our credit card by £2,000.

The initial idea was that I would take the car for a spin at some point, but the thought left me quaking. I didn’t think my considerable years of driving experience would be enough to control the power exuding from the Ferrari. Putting worries aside, we left the company’s rural headquarters near Stowmarket.

The first thing to strike us – apart from the fact that we were practically lying horizontally – was the engine’s roar. It was as if the car were having trouble holding itself back, waiting impatiently until it could let rip and show what it can really do. So we floored it. My God, what a noise, what a sensation of speed, what raw power. Then I looked at the speedometer and discovered we were doing only 60mph, rather than the 100mph it felt. Now I know how people on a luge feel: you’re so close to the ground that any speed feels extraordinary.

The A1120 from Stowmarket towards the Suffolk coast is an officially designated tourist route, and it was a delight to drive through one attractive village after another. By that time we had rather got used to driving the Ferrari – until we parked in sedate Southwold and noticed everyone staring at both the audacious piece of machinery and the people driving it. That’s when you think that everyone will assume you’re a pair of plonkers for having such an ostentatious car. They probably weren’t, but we increased the plonker factor by not knowing how to lock the doors. Very embarrassing. Even more embarrassing was returning to the car and not knowing which key to put in the lock. We soothed our spirits, however, by taking the coast road from Thorpeness to Aldeburgh, where the comfortable Wentworth Hotel awaited. Then we broke the mood by trying to park without pranging it. Phew. Dent count so far: zero.

A celebratory drink was in order, so it was off to the Cross Keys pub where we could down a pint or two and I could try not to giggle too excitedly in case the locals thought I’d lost my mind. I couldn’t quite lose the self-conscious feeling that came with being a temporary owner of a Ferrari – that combination of pride, wonder and oh my God everyone will think I’m a prat. We certainly raised a few eyebrows at the Wentworth. I overheard guests talking about this amazing Ferrari and wondering whom it could possibly belong to. Considering we were by far the youngest people there, they soon twigged. Still, a dinner of venison and fillet steak and a particularly good wine list took the edge off any disquiet.

Until the next morning, that is, when I realised that I really must drive the thing myself. Adam drove the two miles up to Thorpeness and I was to drive back. Two miles. That was it. There were a few curvy bits but, on the whole, it was a straightforward bit of road. Surely nothing to get alarmed about. Of course I stalled it at once. The clutch action was like trying to push your foot through a wall. And second gear didn’t really work until the car was thoroughly warmed up, which it wasn’t. There was no power steering, so the handling required brute strength. First gear was downwards, rather than up. The accelerator was almost as unyielding as the clutch. I felt as if I were having my first driving lesson. Eventually I got going – and going. Into fifth gear and yelling in exhilarated fear. “I’m driving a Ferrari!” All right, I was going only 60, but you try keeping control of a pent-up monster that was made to be redlined. It was probably in shock to find itself on a small country road rather than on a race track.

That was enough of imitating Jodie Kidd. I was content to turn into Laura Bush and let the man take over. We had time for a visit to the galleries and shops at Snape Maltings before the drive back to Grand Touring Club, where we were happy to hand the Ferrari back to Tom. He was equally happy to see that the dent count remained zero.

It was an experience not to be refused, and possibly never to be repeated, but deep down I realised I was more Morse than Magnum. Pass me the Mozart CD.

THE FACTS

How to get there

Mary Novakovich travelled courtesy of the Grand Touring Club (01449 737774; www.grandtouringclub.co.uk), which offers a selection of cars and hotel breaks. Car hire alone starts at £159 for 24 hours, and three-day hotel breaks start at £366, including breakfast and information pack with customised maps. The Wentworth Hotel is featured among the choice of places to stay. Gift vouchers available.




BanyulsYou’re never too young to be a wine buff. Ask the French

In a small town on the south coast, 10-year-olds are taught about viticulture, with lessons on the terraces where the vines grow. Mary Novakovich downs a glass or two

The Independent on Sunday, Published: 26 October 2003

Jérôme Coussanes holds up several bunches of grapes. “That’s muscat,” he says, pointing to a pale green bunch, “and that’s Grenache.” There aren’t many 10-year-old boys who can spot the difference between grape varieties, let alone care about such things. You won’t find wine-making on the national curriculum in Britain, whereas in the Roussillon village of Banyuls-sur-Mer in French Catalonia, a special class of schoolchildren gets hands-on experience in one of the region’s most important industries.

For the past eight years, the 10- and 11-year-old children at Maillol school in Banyuls have been given their own small vineyard to tend throughout the year, culminating in the Fête des Vendanges over the third weekend of October. During school hours the children learn the theory of viticulture, and once a month they get time off to look after the vines and eventually harvest the grapes. They are not alone, of course; the village’s old hands with the vines, the grandfatherly papis vignerons, are there to pass on their considerable knowledge of wine-making and to encourage and even inspire the next generation. Presumably they also keep an eye on the kids to make certain they are not running wild with grape cutters.

It is not easy work, especially because the vineyards of Banyuls are on steep hillside terraces which come tumbling down towards the Mediterranean. But then this is a hardy group of children; indeed, in spite of the famously rich French diet, there is hardly an overweight one among them. Surely, they must find the work a bit on the back-breaking side, though, what with crates of grapes weighing up to 70kg. “No, not really,” says Jérôme. All of his friends chime in unison: “It’s better than being in school!”

The children were supposed to give a demonstration of the harvest in their vineyard, but torrential storms put paid to many of the planned festivities. Planes were diverted from nearby Perpignan airport, and huge waves crashed into the seafront and even made their way into the waterside cafés. It was hard to believe that, just a few days before, people were swimming in the same sea that claimed the lives of two sailors.

The outdoor public dance was cancelled, too, which meant we had to make do with an indoor barbecue in the village hall. Luckily, the spit roast was under cover, so a steady supply of lamb and sausages kept coming. In spite of the grey skies outdoors, the hall was filled with vivid colour: red and yellow balloons in the traditional Catalan style, and, bizarrely, a riot of pink supplied by the brass band playing both traditional French and Catalan music. It was not long before everyone – adults and children – was waltzing away merrily.

I could not help but feel sorry for the children, however. This was their year to be petits vignerons and the centre of attention at the festival. The next batch of 10-year-olds will take over soon, and the focus will be on them instead. Weren’t they at all disappointed? Pierre, Alice and Vincent shrug. “Yeah, well, it’s a shame,” they say philosophically, but their attention wavers when they spot another round of food coming. So no tantrums there, then.

Inevitably the weather in this normally dry region was the main concern. Sunday was the day for the big beach party and it would have been quite terrible for that to get washed out, too. By a minor miracle, however, the sky stayed dry and even allowed the sun to peep out occasionally. Just as well, because such a glorious way of celebrating the wine harvest should not be missed. It is an event that brings in not just Banyulencs, but also people from Perpignan and the neighbouring villages of Collioure, Port Vendres, Cerbère and others that hug the Côte Vermeille, the dramatic and rocky coast bordering Spain.

By midday, most of the beach was covered in long trestle tables decked out in yellow and red and the spit roasts were already smoking. People set out their stalls offering plates of mussels and chips and a glass of wine for all of €3 (£2). While the food for sale was mainly for the benefit of tourists (vastly outnumbered by the locals) and those who did not get themselves organised in time, most of the beach was filled with huge extended family groups enjoying their picnic while musicians took turns serenading the revellers with traditional songs. The big smiles of delight on everyone’s faces was irrefutable evidence of the party’s warm and convivial atmosphere.

Many of those smiles would have been helped by the free wine, of course. Just behind the seafront, wine-growers set up tables in the streets to give the public a chance to taste their new wine; all you had to do was buy a glass for €2 and keep getting it refilled. You could not lose your glass either because it came with a handy band and string so you could sling it round your neck. How very thoughtful, particularly when you are trying to make your way through the throngs of people crowding the colourful streets.

It’s far too early to tell if this year’s batch of junior wine-growers will be one of those handing out their wine during future festivals. Out of the dozen or so I spoke to, only one had her mind made up. Eleven-year-old Paule Bosch thinks she has found her calling, for a calling it is. The adult wine-growers agree that it is a vocation that demands passion and a willingness to work extremely hard. But as one of the papis vignerons, Georges Sedabeille, told me, wine-making is the heart of the region. He beams with pride as he surveys his group of petits vignerons whom he has spent the past year nurturing. “The children need to learn about traditional ways of life,” he says. “No one here wants those methods to disappear, and this is a way of showing children how important viticulture is.” Even if people leave the area to work in a different field, adds Georges, they never forget their heritage, and many come back to discover that wine-making is for them after all.

The Facts:

Getting there

Ryanair (0871 246 000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Perpignan from £30. Banyuls-sur-Mer is 35 minutes’ drive away.

Being there
The author travelled courtesy of the Pyrénées-Orientales tourist board and stayed at Thalacap hotel (00 33 4 68 98 36 66; www.thalacap.fr). Double rooms start at €38 (£26) per person.

Further information

Pyrénées-Orientales tourist board (00 33 4 68 51 52 53; www.pyreneesorientales tourisme.com).
Languedoc-Roussillon tourist board (00 33 4 67 22 81 00 www.sunfrance.com).

All photographs © Adam Batterbee and Mary Novakovich