Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road: a ride of a lifetime

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I’ve never been one to take life lightly, so I don’t know why I decided to dabble with death on a whim.

It was my third day in Bolivia and I’d journeyed three hours out of the frenzy of sky-high La Paz to Coroico, a subtropical little muddle of a town perched on a mountaintop in the North Yungas region.

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There, late one night after the dregs of a bottle of syrupy Bolivian wine had been drained, two angel-faced Germans propositioned me. “Tomorrow we’re cycling the Death Road. Come with us?” they coaxed. So I did.

I then knew little about the notoriety of ‘el camino de la muerte’; a dramatically steep, perilously narrow dirt track that coils around an Andean cliff face between La Paz  and Coroico. Starting at 4,800 metres and plunging to 1,200 metres in just 40 mile, it gained its macabre nickname due to the high frequency of Bolivian buses tumbling off its edges into deep gorge and tangled vegetation below.

Some 300 annual fatalities were reported in the 1990s and it was then that the camino gained its title as The World’s Most Dangerous Road. When a new route was paved to redirect buses in 2007, the abandoned Death Road was claimed by thrill-seeking cyclists looking to test their nerves on a heart-racing, downhill descent. And apparently, I was to become one of them.

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We set out early in the morning with heads as heavy as the thick rainclouds that masked the Andean peaks looming around us. In Coroico’s central square we met our guides; a pack of excitable young locals who clambered nimbly about a beat-up minivan to secure mud-encrusted mountain bikes to the roof. With them we drove more than an hour up the vast, winding valley with hearts fluttering and heads bobbing to their blaring, base-heavy music and the thuds of the rutted mountain road.

bikes Our starting point awaited us with biting cold and drizzling rain. Fitted with knee pads and helmets, we set out into the gloomy abyss.

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The first thing I noticed was the sheer bumpiness of the whole experience. My entire body shook as I navigated my thick wheels over pieces of jagged rubble that had tumbled down the mountainside. White knuckles clasped to the handlebars, I focussed on steering around the potholes, only daring to snatch a few desperate glances over the vertical drop beside me. A series of flower-strewn graves dotted along the cliff edge were an ominous warning of the fate that awaited me if, even for a second, I lost concentration.graveAt some point my grip loosened, the rain ceased and the clouds lifted. I became aware of the spectacular countryside around me, now illuminated in celestial sunlight. Picking up speed, we raced our guides around hairpin turns, under gushing waterfalls and over rickety bridges with reckless and ecstatic abandon. In the lush. lower terrain, colourful butterflies danced around our handlebars and the humid air was heady with aromatic herbs that peppered the grassy verge.

view

We crossed the finish line in the village of Yolosa to a chorus of cheers and shared a celebratory beer before returning to Coroico feeling nothing less than invincible.

On the way back, we passed a small crowd gathered along the roadside. Our driver rolled down the window and exchanged a few hurried mumbles. A minivan had shot off the side just minutes earlier, we learned.

The rest of the ride was spent in sober contemplation.While we may had conquered Bolivia’s most famous Death Road, others – less known but just as deadly – surely lay ahead.

Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road can be organised through various tour agencies in Coroico such as Barracuda Biking. Day tours also go from La Paz.

How to make empanadas (Argentine style)

empanadas

I’ve always prided myself on resisting fast food… until I discovered a certain weakness for empanadas. South America’s answer to the Cornish pasty, these crescent-shaped pastry bakes filled with meat or veggie goodness are sold by the bucketload in virtually every country across South America varying from place to place. I particularly like the Argentine versions which are baked rather than deep fried and are usually filled with beef, chicken or caprese (mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil) for non-meat eaters.

After munching my away around most of the empanada shops of Buenos Aires, I decided it was high time to perfect the art of baking them myself and so I booked onto the Tierra Negra cooking course. Run by professional chef Manu and his partner Veronica in their lovely home in Palermo Hollywood, the evening class was a laid-back, intimate affair that introduced us four wannabe chefs to a variety of regional recipes (emapandas, flan, ducle de leche and a spicy tomato salsa). Hands-on preparation was followed by a sit-down feast on at the end of the session. IMG_8297

While Manu took charge of the cooking, Veronica offered a tasting of three delicious Argentine wines from various regions (I use the term ‘tasting’ loosely as our glasses were constantly full and Veronica was quick to uncork another bottle once we’d drained the last). Needless to say, I left the class feeling recipe enriched and slightly sozzled.

The highlight for me, of course, was learning how to make empanadas. I was surprised how easy it was to whip up the dough from scratch and I loved how Manu used a combination of spices, boiled egg, olives, herbs and spices to make the meat filling so flavourful. The only fiddly aspect came right at the end when twisting the edges of dough to ensure the filling didn’t seep out and the finish was smooth involved some skill. Mine looked rather ‘homemade’ but still tasted delicious!

The recipe below is for beef-filled empanadas but can be adapted very easily – try experimenting with the filling or adding your favourite herbs and your empanadas will never taste the same twice. They make a great starter to a latino-themed meal or something to share between friends, with a bottle or two of Malbec of course!

Empanada dough    

Ingredients (for 10 empanadas)

  • ½ cup water
  • 2 ½ tbsp oil (I prefer olive oil but you can use sunflower or corn oil)
  • 250 gr plain flour
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Preparation

  1. Mix the flour and oil in a large bowl and then add the water. You’ll probably want to start off with a wooden spoon but then use your hands to mix it well.
  2. Put the dough on the table and knead it for a good ten minutes until the dough has a really good elasticity.
  3. Cover the dough and allow it to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge.
  4. Remove the dough from the fridge, divide it and roll into 10 small balls.
    balls
  5. Sprinkle flour on a clean surface and use a rolling pin to roll out the balls so they are flat, thin and circular. You can then stack them by using flour in between so they don’t stick together.

Beef filling

Ingredients (for a batch of 10-12 empanadas)

  • 500 gr of diced or ground organic beef
  • 3 medium-sized onions
  • 4 spring onion, green part only
  • ½ cup pitted green olives
  • 3 hard boiled eggs
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp oregano

Preparation

  1. Melt the butter and the oil in a large saucepan on a medium heat and sweat the diced onions with a pinch of salt until they turn translucent.
  2. Stir in all of the spices and cook for another minute.
  3. Add the beef and cook fully. The mixture should be moist but not dripping so drain off any excess liquid.
  4. Combine the spring onions, stir and season before turning off the heat.
  5. Add the olives and the roughly chopped eggs (If you are planning to keep the filling for the next day then the eggs can be added the following day).
  6. Lie the dough circles flat on a clean surface and fill with about two tablespoons of the beef mixture. Be sure to leave room around the edges for the dough to be folded.
  7. Wet the edges of the dough with water and fold over into a semi-circle to enclose the filling. Use your finger to seal the edges. Wet one end and twist into shape.
    filling
  8. Brush the empanadas with egg before baking at about 200 degrees for ten minutes or until golden before serving.
    bake

Insider tips!

  • Rolling the dough edges differently helps differentiate the various fillings. The meat filling is usually braided by twisting the dough at the edges while the caprese is tucked at the edges into a bow shape. To do this, instead of twisting, pull the two sides together so they meet before sealing.
    caprese
  • After mastering the standard fillings, try variations such as blue cheese, mozzarella and celery or tuna, onions, red and green peppers. You can also change the white flour for a healthier alternative such as corn or quinoa flour.

Back in Buenos Aires: the highlights

Buenos Aires. There’s something about this city that gets under your skin. Whether it’s the melancholy of the discordant tango strains, the neglected grandeur of the old buildings or the seductive energy of the porteños and their singsong accents, be sure that Buenos Aires will linger on in your mind’s eye.

Memories of the city have certainly haunted me since I left here five years ago and I’ve been daydreaming about returning ever since. Then I was a 22-year-old student, a little lost in a big city, with a breezy attitude and better stamina for late-night carousing. Now that I’m finally back I find myself ambling along familiar streets but still a little lost – this time in a haze of nostalgia for my former self and my past life here.

Luckily the city hasn’t changed so much, and all my favourite haunts are still here to welcome me. Here are a few places I’ve come to love in the city….

PicMonkey Collage

Pillow talk in…Home Hotel
For my first night in Buenos Aires, I treated myself and checked in to this lovely boutique hotel in the trendy Palermo Hollywood barrio. It’s definitely worth the splurge. Decorated in calming neutrals that reflect its green ethos, the hotel has spacious rooms, a spa and restaurant – a popular lunch spot for locals – where guests also have breakfast. The real showpiece though is the patio area, where a cocktail bar and ubiquitous parrilla (the outdoor grill every self-respecting Argentine has in their backyard) look out onto verdant gardens overgrown with giant tropical plants and a gorgeous swimming pool. It’s an oasis of calm that feels far removed from the busy city.
Home Hotel, Honduras 5860, Palermo Hollywood

home

Seek solace in…Libros del Pasaje
I love the atmosphere of this old-fashioned bookshop, with its high bookshelves stacked with eclectic tomes – reachable by hopping on the rolling ladder. I usually sidestep the erudite browsers and make a beeline for the back of the bookshop where a little café serves homemade cakes and tangy, mint-infused lemonade as well as more substantial meals. Relax into the deep leather armchairs with a book and a glass of Malbec or head out into the light-filled conservatory where customers sit with knitted eyebrows, a coffee and their laptops.
Libros del Pasaje, Thames 1762, Palermo Soho

Libros de viaje!

Stroll in…San Telmo market
It may be touristy, but for me San Telmo’s Sunday fair still conjures up much of the magic and intrigue that I first loved about this city. Makeshift stalls stretch all along Calle Defensa, backed by gently crumbling stone facades. Vendors sell all kinds of knick-knacks; leather wares, handmade jewellery, gaucho paraphernalia and decorative fileteado painted signs. The drama crescendos on Plaza Dorrego where crowds cluster around tango performers and there’s a jumble of stalls offering more authentic antiques. The best time to come is late afternoon, when there are fewer people and you can dine in style…with a choripan (chorizo sandwich) from a street vendor of course.
Feria de San Telmo, Defensa y Humberto

sant
Go green in…Bosques de Palermo
When I want to escape the city grime I head for this park – officially known as Parque Tres de Febrero. Dotted with palms and jacaranda trees, it’s got a beautiful lake where lovers and families take out row boats and pedalos. At the weekend, the park is packed with locals sitting and drinking mate, feeding the often-ferocious swans or circling the park on rollers skates. For a more serene setting, find a bench in the well-manicured rose garden at the heart of the park.

park

Have a cocktail at…Frank’s
‘Coffee’ I stammer rather unconvincingly to a stern looking doorman. Thankfully he nods and moves a side. A girl in a tight-fitting black number is there to greet me and reveals a code to dial in the phone box as the back of the room. I pick up the phone and punch in the code before pushing the back of wall behind me, as ordered. It leads down a dimly-lit corridor to the famed 1920s-themed speakeasy that is Frank’s. Inside, it’s dark and sultry with tiered chandeliers and beautiful people drinking killer cocktails served by barman in dickie bows and suspenders. Gimmicky? Yes definitely. Verging on the ridiculous? I’d say so. But darn, it’s fun. And don’t those cocktails taste good.
Frank’s, Arévalo 1443 Palermo (ask for the password via the facebook page)

Franks

Having mainly eaten my way around the city, wait for my next blog post on eating out recommendations.

El Boliche de Bessonart, San Antonio de Areco, Argentina

gaucho

From the outside, El Boliche de Bessonart looks almost derelict. Its flaking stone walls jut out from the corner of a dark, dusty street a little way from San Antionio de Areco’s cobbled central plaza. I dawdle awkwardly by the door before finally venturing in.

Inside, the no-nonsense tavern has that kind of rustic pizazz that trendy hangouts can only dream of replicating. Time-worn scuffed paint reveals the roseate brick behind and the floor is bare and tiled. There are wrought-iron chairs, wicker stools and a long oak counter backed by old liquor bottles caked in dust. I like how the black-and-white photos covering the walls all hang a little off-centre and that soft chacarera music plays in the background to lighten the mood.

shelvesI score a table at the back of the room and the barwoman brings me a glass brimming with red wine and a basket of monkey nuts. She tells me the bar is more than 200 years old and has been preserved as a historic vestige. A handful of couples and groups of friends scattered around the room eye me with a mix of suspicion and sympathy. ‘I’m fine,’ I want to tell them. ‘Content to sit and drink. And eat monkey nuts.’

bar2

My attention is held by three gauchos standing at the bar. I’ve only read about these archetypal Argentine cowboys that live on remote ranches and pass their time on horseback exploring the vast, flat pasturelands of the pampas. Now, in the gaucho heartland of San Antonio, I get to see them in the flesh.

The men exude a raw, no messin’ machismo. Shirts tucked, sleeves rolled, their hands hang heavy on the pockets of their low-slung jeans buckled with sturdy leather belts. One sports a scraggy mullet, another a flat cap that resembles a misshapen beret but is in fact part of the traditional gaucho costume. They slouch and squint and glug beer and exchange few words.

barwoman

A couple walk in. You can tell they are tourists, like me, with their bright
t-shirts and shiny cameras. “We’re from Buenos Aires,” the guy tells me while his girlfriend is at the bar. When she goes to the bathroom he hastily scribbles down his number and passes it to me. I gawp in only slight disbelief. Typical Argentine chamuyero – charmer.

Drink drained, and with a lap full of nut shells, it’s time for me to leave. My head may be clouded by Malbec, but I’m pretty sure this is my favourite ever bar. And in my next life I hope I come back as a gaucho.

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San Atonio de Areco is two hours from Buenos Aires. For recommendations on what to do in the capital read my post here.

Peru on a plate: ceviche

In April of this year, I spent two weeks in Peru where gorging myself on ceviche – a typical Peruvian dish of fish marinated in lime juice – became a daily ritual. The abundance of fresh seafood meant each time I ordered the dish it was different; from simple white fish selections to more elaborate combinations of plump scallops, tender octopus and fleshy prawns. Usually, ceviche was served with sweet potato, avocado and cancha – toasted corn that double up as a popular bar snack. I’d always add a generous dollop of aji – Peru’s hot-chili salsa. On my return home, I was delighted to find that recreating the dish was as simple as the locals out there had promised. It makes a delicious summer starter that, for me, brings back wonderful memories of living the Latino high life.

Ingredients

–          500g of fresh white fish (cod, halibut, sea bass, snapper) diced into chunks

–          Juice of 8-10 limes

–          1 red onion, thinly sliced

–          3 red and green chillis, thinly sliced

–          Bunch of coriander, roughly chopped

–          2 large sweet potatoes

–          1 avocado

–          Virgin olive oil

Method

1/ In a large bowl, combine the fish, lime juice, onion and chilli. Make sure the lime juice completely covers the fish. Cover and leave in the fridge for 1-2 hours.

2/ While the fish is macerating, boil the sweet potatoes and slice the avocado lengthways. When cooked, skin the potatoes and slice

3/ Remove the fish from the fridge and discard the juice. Add the chopped coriander and a large pinch of salt 3/ Assemble the ceviche on a plate with the sweet potato and avocado on the side, drizzled with olive oil. Garnish with a slice of lime and tuck in!

Top tip: First-timers tend to leave the fish marinating for longer than necessary – in Peru they say it only needs 20 minutes and leaving it overnight  ‘overcooks’ it.

Read my article on eating out in Cusco here 

The ten best pubs in the Cotswolds

With its honey-stone villages and swathes of pristine countryside, the Cotswolds offers an idyllic weekend escape less than two hours away from London. It’s not all quiet walks and early nights though – pitch up at one of these local pubs and you’re sure to find hearty food, strong ales and a colourful array of locals…(including me!)

The Wild Rabbit, Kingham
Best for: Posh nosh
This chi-chi gastro-pub is brainchild of Lady Bamford, the wife of JCB magnate and owner of nearby Daylesford Organic farm shop. With her former private chef Adam Caisley manning the kitchen, the menu offers spruced-up traditional fodder that is served to well-to-do diners in a rustic-chic restaurant – think exposed bricks and flagstone floors.  The four guestrooms are surprisingly affordable after one Bellini too many.
thewildrabbit.co.uk

The Chequers, Churchill
Best for: Saturday night scandal
With its killer cocktails, cheeky bar staff, and guest list of celebrity drinkers (Rebekah Brookes, Alex James and Amanda Holden just some of the regulars), the Chequers is the go-to for weekend wickedness that reveals the spicier side of the sleepy Cotswolds. People watch from leather-bound chairs in the open-plan restaurant or, for a more discreet dinner, ask for the tucked-away table upstairs.
thechequerschurchill.com

The Kings’ Head, Bledington
Best for:  Hobnobbing with the locals
Nestled behind a pristine village green, this quintessentially English pub is quaint, cosy and full of character with its low-beamed ceiling, strong ales and trusty band of merry local drinkers propping up the bar. For a proper knees-up, time your visit for one of the pub’s famous quiz nights or join in with when the Irish fiddlers come and whip up a jig and a sing-along.
thekingsheadinn.net

The Kingham Plough
Best for: Gourmet grub
Cooking up a storm in this gastro pub is head honcho Emily Watkins, former sous-chef to Heston Blumenthal. She provides classic pub food with a good dollop of sophistication – perfect for foodies wanting to please the palate in a casual pub setting. Those on a small budget can settle for the dangerously moreish bar snacks – duck fat-doused chips, tubby pork pies and scotched quail eggs.
thekinghamplough.co.uk

The Bell Inn, Sapperton

Best for: Walkers’ paradise
Those hankering for a wholesome escapade will find The Bell a popular hangout for wellie-wearing ramblers. Stock up on country air by following the well-trodden circular walking route through thick woodland and down leafy lanes that ends back at the pub for a hearty lunch and well-earned pint.
bellsapperton.co.uk

The Hollow Bottom, Kineton
Best for:  Horsing around
Racing aficionados hedging bets on the Cheltenham Festival can score a tip or two at the Hollow Bottom where racing memorabilia plasters the walls and jockeys meet to celebrate their win. Just a few miles from the race course, the pub offers special packages during race week and even a free mini bus service to cart betters back and forth.
hollowbottom.com

The Wild Duck, Ewen
Best for: Lazy Sundays
Low-hanging beams and surly portrait hangings give bags of character to this unfussy pub that gets it right with its huge Sunday-lunch portions and faultless Bloody Marys. Roaring log fires and a sunny outside terrace makes it a good all-rounder come rain or shine. The proximity to Prince Charles’s country pad, Highgrove House, means you can go for a post-roast snoop around the Royal gardens should it take your fancy.
thewildduckinn.co.uk

The Fox Inn, Great Barrington
Best for: Alfresco drinking
While the bar may be small and a little dingy, the Fox’s overriding draw is its vast beer garden flanked by a gurgling river and overlook bucolic Cotswold hills – picturesque to the extreme. Come summertime, the lively atmosphere steps up a notch with weekend barbeques, its own music festival (the aptly-named Foxstock) and the arrival of popular local circus, Giffords, which pitches its big top next door.
foxinnbarrington.com

Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter
Best for:  Weekend with wow factor
This 17th-centry stately manor house won’t fail to impress with its antique furnishings, manicured lawns and lavish Michelin-star dining. Those planning an overnight stay should be prepared to splurge on rooms that, with four-poster beds and freestanding baths, resemble a scene from Downtown Abbey. Otherwise, an afternoon cream tea and stroll around the surrounding woodland still offers a spark of magic.
lordsofthemanor.com

The Swan, Swinbrook
Best for:  Diplomatic dining
This sweet cottage pub rose to fame earlier this year when David Cameron strolled in with his new pal, French President François Hollande. Make like the leaders and find a discreet corner to pull up a pew and put the world to rights over potted shrimp, rainbow trout and apple crumble. If you’re less inclined for business talk, the gourmet burger night on a Thursday is a good way to chew the fat with the locals.
theswanswinbrook.co.uk

A day in Marseille

The mention of Marseille often provokes some or other eyebrow-raised reaction. For those accustomed to the polished streets of the French Riviera, the rough-around-the-edges city is a blemish on an otherwise squeaky-clean coastline. Others are ruffled by what plays out in the headlines, where Marseille is notoriously cast as a drug-trafficking gangland. I decided to make up my own mind and made a fleeting visit there towards the end of the 2013. My trip tied in nicely with the second half of the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture.

port

I instantly fell for Marseille. Gritty; yes, unsafe; most likely, but the port town can never be accused of lacking character. With its light and breezy Mediterranean air, Marseille  combines age-old monuments with innovative art projects, making it a compelling visit for history lovers and hipsters alike. And not a bullet hole in sight, honest…

Ancient quarters
Set back behind the harbour is the Quartier du Panier; Marseille’s oldest district and my favourite part of the city. Founded in 600 BC, it has traditionally been a working-class neighbourhood, where waves of immigrant settlers congregated. This history has given the area its distinctly cosmopolitan vibe, bustling with ethnic shops, exotic cafes and restaurants. I spent the morning getting lost amid the tangle of tiny alleyways, admiring the street art, colourful doorways and faded ochre houses.

houses

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The district is how I imagine Montmartre might have been before the tourists conquered and the bohemians cleared out. Every second building is a makeshift atelier, where young, dishevelled artists sell their urban prints and wacky artworks (or rather, lett the art speak for itself while they chain-smoke outside). Narrow streets open out onto wide, sun-drenched squares, where us tourists can make like the locals and opt for a bright and breezy Cagole – the local blond beer.

PicMonkey Collage

Among these labyrinthine streets is the impressive Veille Charité – a baroque-style building that served as a 17th century poorhouse but today it’s a cultural centre. The impressive arched courtyard and domed central complex are well worth a walk-around.

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Modern moves
Down by the old port I found some of the newer fixtures that have sprung out of Marseille’s stint as culture capital.  L’Ombrière is the best of the bunch. Designed by Norman Foster, it’s a mirrored pavilion that reflects upside-down fishing boats and passing pedestrians – simple yet compelling in the way it cleverly creates snapshot of quayside life. Best known to us Brits as the man behind the Gherkin and Millennium Bridge, Fosters also has an impressive repertoire in southern France, boasting such architectural marvels as the Millau Viaduct and the Carré d’Art in Nîmes.

foster

The two new gleaming museums, the Villa Méditerranée and Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation, found slap-bang on the waterfront are further symbols of Marseille’s ambitious cultural  makeover. Walking up, down and around the sprawling MuCem delivers you across the Fort Saint-Jean, with a great view across the outstretching blue.

I finished the day on a high, at the ornate Notre-Dame basilica that towers over the city sprawl. It’s the perfect place to admire the city at dusk, before wondering back down in search of an evening aperitif – pastis anyone?

WHERE TO STAY
Big budget:
Intercontinental Marseille
This recently opened showstopper offers luxury lodgings in a renovated 18th-century hospital building overlooking the old port. For those unable to foot the hefty room bill, the vast terrace has a restaurant and bar, great for an indulgent evening of swanky cocktails and killer views.
1 Place Daviel, 13002 Marseille
Tel: (Fr) 4 13 42 42 42
www.ihg.com

shoestring spender:
Mama Shelter
This Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel makes a cool and quirky base that won’t break the bank. With beds from €49, the hotel offers eccentric decor and a bar specialising in oh-so-potent pastis, which contribute to a fun and young vibe.
64 Rue de la Loubière, 13006 Marseille
Tel: (Fr) 4 84 35 20 00
www.mamashelter.com

Turkish delight: A break to celebrate

lamps

As my mum’s 60th birthday loomed closer, she proved her aged wisdom by forfeiting the customary birthday bash for a week-long celebratory holiday and decided to take her three grown-up girls along for good measure. The first family holiday in years seemed like a good way to begin the benchmark year.

After drawing up a bucket list, we squabbled over various suggestions, ruling out India (too hectic), Greece (too obvious), and Mexico (too far away), before finally agreeing on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The promise of turquoise waters, late-season sunshine and tasty meze all helped sway our decision. Thankfully, it turned out to be a pretty good one, and us four girls spent a wonderful week together there this October.

PART I: DALYAN
After flying into Dalaman airport, we had a quick twenty-minute drive to central Dalyan. In high season, it’s a mecca for rowdy charter flight holidaymakers, but thankfully by October we almost had the place to ourselves. The main street still bore some remnants of its Brits-abroad alter ego – think neon-lit bars and happy hour cocktails – but these were easily forgiven in light of its family-run pensions, atmospheric restaurants and authentic marketplace. The town also made a good base to explore the surrounding sights.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP
Dalyan’s lively Saturday market offers an insight into local life, with stalls selling all sorts of exotic spices, sun-swollen fruit and veg and local linens.  After picking up the staples, we tracked down the harem trouser-clad women frying up gozlemas– a speciality pancake stuffed with spinach, local goats’ cheese and fresh herbs that made a perfect mid-morning snack. pancake1
ANCIENT RUINS
On Dalyan’s riverbank we found a fleet of local boatmen vying to transport tourists to the various sites down the water. The four of us collectively paid a water taxi 50 Turkish Lire return (about £15) for a trip to the ancient ruins of Kaunos. The boat trip was also a good way to get a closer look at the series of mystifying Lycian tombs that are carved into the cliff opposite Dalyan centre and date back to 400 BC.

caves1
From the drop-off jetty a short, dusty walk past pomegranate groves took us to crumbling Kauonos, with its best remains being the Byzantine basilica, Roman baths and well-preserved semi-circular amphitheatre sunk into the hillside (entrance 8 TL).  By early afternoon it’s a sun trap, and we spent a happy hour soaking up rays on the ancient stalls of its stadium, taking in the panoramic views on the sea and the mountains.

ampi

BEACH TIME
The best beach around is Itzuzu – a 5-km stretch of pristine coastline, accessed by water taxi or road. We followed the mountain pass by car, stealing looks over the vertiginous cliff edge to where a fresh water lagoon met the seascape.

The beach itself is a protected breeding ground for caretta caretta, the native loggerhead turtles. Lucky swimmers may find themselves sidling up to a giant shell in the deeper waters – quite an experience! Next to the beach, a turtle hospital is a sobering reminder of the damage caused by human interference; in giant tanks we saw turtles recovering from fungal infections and smashed shells from collisions with boats.

beach2

MUCK AROUND
After a hot afternoon on the beach, the best way to cool off is by wallowing around in the nearby mud baths.  Although I fear the sulphur-laced sludge may have stained my swimsuit beyond repair, I was assured by the locals that the mineral-rich mud would cleanse both skin and soul.

CAFE STOP-OFF
On the way home, we stopped at Nar Danesi bar for a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (or for those with a sweet tooth, a home-made pomegranate ice cream). The bar is made atmospheric by a canopied open roof and low-level tables, seated with traditional Turkish cushions. Otherwise, a tree house shack in the garden offers a more secluded hangout. www.nardanesi.com

eye edit

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DINING OUT
Our very favourite restaurant in Kalkan was the riverside Beyazgul – meaning ‘White Rose’. Sitting out on a balmy evening under a canopy of lemon trees and knotty vines, we feasted on fresh sea bream, Turkish meatballs and delicious stuffed aubergine. The low-hanging lanterns, sultry jazz music and views across the river towards the lit-up Lycian tombs, eerily suspended in blackness, all contributed to the magical atmosphere of the evening. www.beyazgul.info

PART II: KALKAN
After a couple of nights in Dalyan, we drove two hours to the bustling harbour town of Kalkan. Built around a curling bay at the foot of the Tauras mountains, the town is flashier than Dalyan and attracts both tourists and affluent Turks who can be found dining in the swanky harbour-side restaurants.

HOTEL HEAVEN
The lovely boutique hotel Fidanka lived up to all expectations. Set high up above the harbour, we nearly missed the hotel entrance, draped in brilliant pink bougainvillea. Up the steps we found the bar and restaurant terrace beside a swimming pool, overlooking the bay.

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The hotel’s stone façade was spruced up with rustic timber cabins that serve as hotel room balconies. Countless pot plants, tangled shrubbery and fruit-laden lime trees flanked the passage to our family suites.

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Quirky details gave Fidanka that special something; I loved the hand-painted mirrors, the wall-hanging plates, the rough-hewn tabletops decorated with colourful beads. The staff – like all the Turkish people we met – were gracious and welcoming and the generous breakfast buffet and supper menu, offering authentic local dishes, were both excellent. www.fidanka.com

GREECE IN A DAY
We spent a blissful day visiting the little Greek island of Meis (Kastellorizo in Greek). One of the easternmost islands of Greece, it’s just a couple of miles off the Turkish coast. The 10am ferry leaves from the harbour town of Kaş – a 25 minute-long scenic coastal drive from Kalkan. From the port, it took less than half an hour before the island came into view.

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With a backdrop of craggy mountains, the port is truly idyllic. We sauntered slowly along the central walkway, admiring the colourful little fishing boats that bobbed around in the crystalline waters and peering into the shutters of traditional tiled-roofed houses painted in a pastel hues. door2
Although the port has no beach, we happily wiled away the day exploring the cobbled backstreet, basking in the scorching sun, and feasting on grilled octopus and Greek salad in a waterside Tavernas.  When 3pm and the return journey to Kaş arrived, we were very sad to say goodbye to the little piece of paradise.

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BEACH BREAK
Two sandy beaches near Kalkan provided plenty of opportunity to top up on Vit D. Purist sun worshippers (like my older sister) will find nothing to detract them from the sun and sea at Kaputas. Formed by a plummeting gorge that opens out into a stretch of golden sand and turquoise water, it’s astonishingly picturesque. Alternatively, for fidgeter like me who need a distraction to break up the sunbathing, the 18km-long Patara beach charges for entry, but is well worth it for the chance to visit the atmospheric Roman amphitheatre located beside the beach.

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SUNKEN CITY
From Kaş there are daily morning boat trips to Kekova and the Sunken City. If you decide to go with a group, be aware that boats can be crowded and blaring music on board can sometimes detract from the scenic surroundings. We preferred to drive further along the coastal road and picked up a local water taxi from the nearest point to the island – the little fishing village of Üçağiz . With just a few ram-shackled buildings and a handful of low-key pensions, shops and waterside restaurants, Üçağiz is an authentic retreat that seems virtually untouched by modern life.

Within minutes of arriving, we met local boatmen Abdullah who proved to me a knowledgeable guide and affable host. As we cruised the limpid waters in his wooden boat, we peered over the side to see giant turtles swimming nearby and the the sunken city below us. An eroded hammam, submerged columns and remains of mosaic hinted of the ancient civilisation’s former splendour before it was worn away by the sea and the corrosion of time.

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We moored at the beautiful island of Kaleköy (known as Kale) to climb up to the crumbling Simena fortress that was built in the middle-ages, supposedly to protect the land from pirates.  Reaching the top rewarded us with a vantage point over the ancient city walls, littered with ubiquitous Lycian tombs.

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BIRTHDAY FINALE
On our last night in Kalkan, we planned a little birthday surprise for our mum at Hotel Villa Mahal (villamahal.com). Gloriously glamorous, the hotel is spread over various levels that are built into the scarped cliff face overhanging the bay. Past the sleek cocktail bar, we edged down steep steps passed a infinity pool that jutted out over the sea.  At the  spa below, mum enjoyed an hour-long massage from a treatment room with a sunset view. We enjoyed a similar view from nearby hammock swings  before heading to the bar in search of cocktails.

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An hour later and with a Piña Colada in hand, mum looked in a pretty good position for sixty. During a delicious supper, she was spoiled rotten by the charismatic waiters who dedicated themselves to making the evening special. As mum unwittingly sat expecting the dessert menu, the restaurant was plunged into darkness, the bluesy music  switched for a happy birthday chorus, and a troupe of staff holding giant sparklers emerged with an elaborate cream-heavy birthday cake. It was literally the icing on the cake to what had been a wonderful holiday.

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Giffords circus: A class act

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One of my favourite family traditions is our annual outing to Giffords Circus during its summer tour of various village greens and levelled fields of the Cotswolds. Under my mother’s summoning, squabbling sisters, outspoken aunts and taciturn uncles all meet in the village of Little Barrington to share an evening of rowdy and raucous tent entertainment.

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Forget all your circus phobias; there are no smeary faced clowns or emancipated animal acts in this show. With its old-fashioned circus wagons and outlandish burlesque costumes –  all frills and petticoats – Giffords is an inimitable feast of sumptuous theatrics that embodies English eccentricity at its most audacious. Among its motley cast members – a quavering soprano, a toffee-nosed grand piano player, a clumsy gypsy magician and a giant dancing bear –  the real show stealer is the mischievous Tweedy the Clown.  Appearing at curtain-up in a skimpy leopard-print tunic trailing a kettle on a string, Tweedy keeps the audience amused with his slapstick turns, bawdy slurs and pantomime echoes that weave in and out of each act until the end of the show. It’s not all music and drama; highly polished circus acts include fire throwing jugglers, swinging acrobats, a hand-walking gymnast and a set of acrobatic strongmen.

Giffords’ ringmistress is the formidable Nell Gifford – a Cotswold-raised, Oxford graduate who went further than following her childhood dream of joining the circus by actually creating her very own to star in. Bounding into the ring on an elegant white horse, she adds the chic to the boho spirit of the show.

Each year, the show revolves around a particular theme or story – this year’s Lucky ’13 tells the tale of a Serbian gypsy family who cause a stir among the snooty circus folk when they park their caravan under the big top and render chaos with their whimsical charms and frenetic accordion squeezing . It’s a storyline that will certainly resonate with a Cotwoldian audience, aware of the yearly frays between locals and gypsies who come and park their trailers on well-trimmed Cotswold verges for Stow Fair – one of Britain’s oldest gypsy fairs held twice yearly in Stow-on-the-Wold. By the finale, the gypsies and erudite circus performers have become the best of friends – not quite the happy ending found off stage.

For anyone a little bit enamoured with the cast, Circus Sauce is the after-show restaurant housed in its own bunting-strewn marquee where spectators can schmooze performers over a three-course feast rustled up using locally-sourced, organic ingredients – a prerequisite for impressing the chichi Daylesford-frequenting dinner guests. For us commoners, Barrington’s riverside pub, the Fox, can also provides an opportunity to share a pint with one of the twinkle-eyed jugglers or exotic showgirls who often celebrate there after the show.

www.giffordscircus.com

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Surf and Share: Surf Cooperative

In the secluded crevice of an undulating sand dune, I’d found my perfect groove. As sunrays tickle my skin, my eyelids droop to the rhythmic crashing of waves coming from the other side of the sandbank.

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It all sounds very idyllic, I know. Truth be told, my afternoon snooze isn’t quite as exotic as I’d have believe. No coconut shells or beach bar, and the only foreign tongue around has a distinctly Celtic intonation.

I’m lazing on Llangennith beach on the north end of Rhosilli Bay in the Welsh Gower.  A three-mile stretch of unblemished coastline, I’ve struck gold with this little-known Welsh surfing mecca during one of the first spells of British sunshine this year.

Admittedly, my morning pursuits weren’t quite as soothing – two hours being bashed and battered by punishingly cold Welsh breakers (7 degrees to be exact) while wrestling a small but disobedient foam surf board. Recurrent attempts to even kneel on top of it ended in failure and another humiliating nose-dive that left my instructor shaking his tousled beach hair in despair.

Many defeats and a few mouthfuls of salt water later, my first surf lesson was over. The only challenge left was to peel off my soggy wetsuit, clasped to my skin like a barnacle, and regain enough feeling in my hand to high five my new-found surf posse. Despite my hopeless balancing act out at sea, on dry land I felt victorious.

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I owe my first surfing experience to the Surf Cooperative; a non-profit London-based surf club that organises monthly surf trips to the UK coast and sometimes beyond. It’s the brainchild of Becky Bradley– a laid-back Londoner who caught the surfing bug on a trip in Costa Rica. On her return to the UK, she set up the Coop as a way of keeping her surf spirit alive and finding fellow wave riders in her locale.  Five years down the line, Becky’s surf scheme has gained momentum through social media and word-of-mouth to become a fully fledged monthly fixture.

For our weekend trip, Becky and her wingwoman Ruth have rented a sweet little white-washed stone cottage, the Farmers Arms, in a sleepy Welsh village called Llanmadoc, a 15-minute drive from Llangennith beach. Our motley crew ranges from a strident City banker to a fresh-faced uni grad and many other colourful characters in between. There are both veteran surfers and relative newbies among us – it’s only a high level of enthusiasm that’s required. I’m seemingly the only imposter – tagging along with a vague curiosity in the concept of the Surf Coop but rather reluctant to get my toes wet.  It’s only down to the group’s implacable gusto that I finally conceded to save face and sign up to the surf lesson.

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After the long days spent at the beach, our evening consists of tucking into a hearty home-cooked lasagne and knocking back copious bottles of wine over a wood fire and a fair amount of surf-related chatter.

It’s not all surf – the next morning we explore the walkways around Llanmadoc, through salt marshes, pine forests and along remote shoreline.  A good lunch of traditional British fodder was on offer at The King’s Head, a real local’s pub with a rowdy beer garden full of good-humoured locals.

The weekend bore little resemblance to any kind of conventional guided tour. The cottage was cosy and low-key and lent itself to a convivial atmosphere. The laissez-faire organisation appealed to self-sufficient spirits rather than needy hand-holders. We took care of our own transport (although the Coop can organise car sharing) and booked our own surf lessons. Equipment hire was sorted at PJ’s surf shop on the way to the beach. At the cottage, everyone was expected to muck in with clearing up, cooking and decisions on the weekend surf schedule.

Did it feel like going on holiday with a bunch of strangers? A little bit. But strangers meeting on common ground can quickly become good pals.  In these modern times of internet dating and social networking, it seems the Surf Coop appeals to a growing desire to reach beyond our immediate social remits and make connections with the bigger picture. And have a wave-smashing good time along the way.

MORE INFORMATION

The Surf Cooperative
The weekend cost £200 each for two nights’ accommodation, three meals and free-flowing booze. Surf hire and lessons are added extra. The Coop also organises meet-ups in London to practice technique and improve fitness. Check the website and facebook page for more details.
www.surfcooperative.com

Cottage stay
The farmers Arms, Llanmadoc
Tel: 01792 390997
www.thefarmersarms.co.uk

Drinking holes
The Britannia Inn, Llanmadoc
Tel: 01792 386624
www.britanniainngower.co.uk

The King’s Head, Llangennith
Tel: 01792 386212
www.kingsheadgower.co.uk

Equipment hire
PJs Surf shop, Llangennith
Tel: 01792 386669
www.pjsurfshop.co.uk

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