La Dolce Vita: Bake with Maria, Tuscany and me

DSC_5852

Recently, I was woken early by the lone cry of cockerel instead of the sound of some star-crossed lovers screaming at each other over who necked the last bottle of Bulmers. I opened the shutters to a rosy Tuscan sunrise spilling over a ridiculously green hillside instead of the sickly yellow glow that struggles through London’s grey skies like an undercooked egg.

And instead of a sweaty sprint for a seat on the circle line, all I had to do was wander down three flights of stone stairs and across a dewy lawn, past the potted lemon trees and into a kitchen where I and a bunch of food fanatics were about to spend five days being taught the rudiments of Italian cuisine.

I distinctly remember smiling at that notion, and yes, it probably had an unbearably smug edge to it.

Italy and London are the only places where I don’t feel to exist on sufferance. – E.M. Forster

DSC_5977

There’s something intrinsically magical about food and Italy, in particular, the sun-drenched, olive tree-scattered rolling hills of Tuscany. When you tell people you’re off on a gastronomic trip there their mouths tend to emit mumbles of ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ while their eyes glaze over in a sort of envious state of dreamy irritation — half jealous that you’re going and not them and half lost in the thought of the culinary delights you’re sure to sample.

And who can blame them? Italian produce alone deserves to be talked about in hushed tones of reverence; coming as it does from one of those Mediterranean idylls where the tomatoes are plumper and more outrageously red, the pasta is fresher and richer, the milk-white mozzarella is more delicate and everything tastes, well, indefinably better.

DSC_5816

My friends seemed especially envious/rage-filled when I casually explained the trip that I was actually taking: five days in the Tuscan countryside learning how to cook traditional Italian food interspersed with copious wine drinking and bread gorging at the sprawling 19th century Villa Boccella in the hills outside Lucca courtesy of Bake with Maria’s Maria Mayerhofer.

Even I couldn’t quite believe my luck as I peeled my pink-skinned tourist self out of my taxi at the top of the tiny town of Ponte a Mariano, gawping at the Villa’s Keatsian Ode-worthy facade…and a tiny part of me waiting for some bronzed Italian Baron to set the dogs on me for trespassing on his family’s ancestral homestead.

DSC_5818

That was until Maria Mayerhofer herself came striding around the side of the villa, smiling like I was an old friend arriving for dinner and insisting I had a glass of wine immediately. And to be honest, that’s exactly what cooking with Maria feels like: a casual lesson with a friend. It just so happens that this friend is a wizard with bread and has the ability to make even the most kitchen-phobic of chefs leave feeling like they could take on Masterchef.

DSC_5789

Bake with Maria opened in 2010, with classes being held in Maria’s own kitchen before demand soon outgrew her home and she moved into the fully equipped Baking Lab in November 2011. I’m no stranger to her bread masterclasses or her cooking classes either, having been tutored on how to be gluten savvy there earlier this year.

Maria has been running the five-night cooking course at Villa Boccella for four years, and it’s become a family affair with her parents, her husband Marshall and their toddler, Kasper, all coming along for the ride alongside a Bake with Maria regular and teacher, Annamarie Jones. Throughout the trip, while I and the rest of the Villa’s latest cooking ingenues were busy baking in the onsite kitchens with Maria and Annamarie, it was this crack team of family food enthusiasts who were whipping up vast panzanella salads, tackling endless mountains of washing up and hauling up vast quantities of wine for us all to glug between lessons (Kasper less so; sadly his baby arms could only carry a pitiful amount of wine).

DSC_5935

It didn’t take long before the sprawling, 19-bedroom Villa, with its array of eccentricities that ranged for the gorgeous – the ivory marble bathrooms, the library, the tiny stone chapel – to the ridiculous – namely the huge murals of a yoga-loving jesus that cover the dining room’s walls – began to feel like home and the prospect of leaving this sun-soaked Italian idyll more and more unappetising.

But, there’s more to this trip than just lounging around like a lizard in the afternoon heat; the course included four half-day cooking classes with the aim of making enough food to cater for the group for lunch and evening meals.

IMG_5345

As well as endless variations on bread, from olive-oil saturated foccacia and stone-baked pizza spilling over with bubbling pools of mozzarella to ciabattas studded with handfuls of herbs from the kitchen garden, we learned the rudiments of rustic Italian cooking.

We discovered how to massage hand-chopped mix of herbs and garlic into huge haunches of pork, juicy chunks of which was served later, and rich under the white hot afternoon sun with glasses of chilled white; how to make egg pasta by hand and roll it to the flimsy transparency of skin before stuffing it with ricotta and peppered spinach; how to layer smoky chargrilled aubergine with ladlefuls of tomato sauce and fistfuls of parmesan to make unctuous parmigiana reggiana and how to turn the lemons from the Villa’s own trees into a canary-yellow curd, which in turn became a marshmallow semifreddo coated in a slick of vanilla-scented raspberry coulis and crunchy with shards of toasted almond.

DSC_5838

Between throwing and proving dough we wandered into the town. Ponte a Mariano is a sleepy, pretty little residential place that feels like it hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the world, where mustachioed men in clapped-out Nissans slow down to wish you bonjourno as you walk into the bar-cum-ice cream-shop-cum-ticket-office by the scrubby train station to spend your small change on train tickets to Lucca.

DSC_5900

We caught the rusted trains that shed flecks of cobalt paint for the short hop to Lucca and got lost in the city’s honeycomb streets of pink stone; using its wide central piazzas and famous tree topped tower as our marker. The days fly by in a tangle of flour-smeared aprons, sunburnt faces and evening meals spent discussing shared kitchen disasters that stretch into the balmy nights.

DSC_5806

On the final evening, sitting in front of the great stone fireplace burning old newspapers and feeling distinctly grumpy (and fat, by this point I was monstrously fat) I realised that I would eventually have to write about this trip and, in doing so, share it. Which, when you find a place like this, a place that becomes your own personal slice of edible Italian heaven for what feels like the briefest of moments it is one of the hardest things to do.

DSC_5796

Five nights at Villa Boccella with Maria and her cooking crew costs £1,250 per person (including accommodation, four cooking/baking classes, a vineyard visit with lunch, a trip to Lucca with an evening meal and a recipe book of all the dishes cooked during your stay. Excluding flights).

The next trip will run 1st-6th May, 2016.

If you can’t wait until next May to experience Maria’s authentic Italian cooking, get a taste of the trip with her recipe for fool-proof pasta recipe or her Cantuccini recipe for crunchy, nutty biscuits atypical of the Tuscan region – perfect with your morning cappuccino.

Fresh pasta

Ingredients

180g flour type 00

2 medium eggs, lightly whisked

1 small pinch of salt

Method

Whisk the flour and salt then mix all the ingredients in a bowl, transfer on the table and knead until the dough starts to clump together. If the dough feels a little sticky, then you can add a touch more flour. Knead the dough until it’s silky smooth and elastic.

Wrap in plastic and let it rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature. Keep refrigerated up to 12 hours if you don’t use it immediately.

Feed ¼ of the dough through a pasta machine at a time, keeping the rest of the dough wrapped so it doesn’t dry out. Start with the widest setting and roll the dough several times, changing the direction that your feed it in each time so that the gluten develops evenly, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Reduce the thickness setting and roll through until the desired thickness is reached.

When you’ve rolled your pasta, it can be left in sheets to make lasagna, cut into small strips by hand to make tagliatelle or filled with stuffing to make ravioli or tortellini: just dot spoonfuls of the mixture along one sheet, dab around the filling with water and cover with another sheet of pasta, pressing down gently to seal around the stuffing mounds and cutting out with a pasta stamp or roller.

Cantuccini

Ingredients

300g Tipo 00 flour

200g sugar

100g halved almonds

2 large eggs

40g milk

1tsp orange zest

pinch of salt

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Method

Line a baking tray with baking paper and preheat oven to 190 degrees.

Sift flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Carefully mix in the sugar, orange zest and halved almonds.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add two eggs.

With a small fork, ‘gather’ up the dry ingredients to form a soft dough, which you can just handle – Don’t overwork it or the dough will become too sticky!

If it’s too soft to shape, add a little more flour and if too stiff add a little milk.

Shape into three long ‘sausages’ on the baking tray – about 4cm wide and a little over a finger thickness deep. Leave plenty of space around them to rise and spread.

Bake for 15 minutes at 190 degrees until golden brown.

Remove from the oven and while still on the baking tray, cut each ‘roll’ diagonally into 1-2cm slices to get the classic cantuccini shape.

Spread the biscuits out and put back in the oven to ‘dry’ for about 10 minutes until golden brown.

Advertisements

Malaga memories: On finally appreciating Picasso

“I was born of a white feather and a small glass of Andalusian eau de vie. I was born to a mother the daughter of a fifteen-year-old girl born in the percheles of Málaga the handsome bull who sired me with his forehead crowned with jasmine.” – Picasso: Écrits. Paris. Réunion des Musées Nationaux Gallimard, 1989.

Mercedes swivelled suddenly, her brown leather bag stuffed with tickets stubs and empty water bottles crunching against my hip as she held my arms and looked me square in the face with dark eyes livid and shining, bubbling over with barely concealed passion.

You would have thought that I was used to the fire and the fervour that seemed to simmer just below the surface of most of the Malagans I had met so far, but it still jolted my prim little English self like a rabbit caught in the glare.

“Do you know Picasso? Do you love him? Well, today you will.” She intoned in looping, Spanish splashed English, punctuating her sentences with empathic head nods, like a bright little bird observing a worm it’s just trapped in its claws.

“Ah…good.” I replied meekly, trying to muster some convincingly reverent energy against the mega watt rays of her enthusiasm.

“Come, come, we will explore eaaaavarythink. I will show you it all.”

She refocused the intensity of her gaze into the first room of the Palacio de Buenavista – a great, sweeping Andalusian mansion that has been turned into the home of some of Picasso’s most intimate paintings – and ushered me on, honing in on a painting that, from a distance, looked like a mess of square and splotches.

163TF-VOL1-CAT   7.The Fruit Bowl

I’ve never really got Picasso. Well, to be truthful, that’s an understatement. I never really liked him. That also may be an understatement. I have, without doubt, never understood him.

There was always something that rankled, perhaps the harsh, geometric lines, those misshapen, melting faces broken apart and reformed like your own reflection is mangled in water when you stick your finger in and swirl.

They’re indistinct and fragmented and, underneath it all, there’s that venomous little slithering whisper that thinks given enough paint and canvas any artistically gifted child could do just as well.

But then, one sunny Spanish morning in Malaga, where Picasso was born, my guide Mercedes whisked me around and began to slowly instil her deep seated and deeply rooted adoration for this renegade painter and serial womaniser in me.

478061_305332062910411_1541125862_o

It grew slowly, burning softly at first, born from a grudging respect that sprouted in my belly and grew in increments, finally bursting forth in front of one painting that managed to wrench tears from me as Mercedes stepped back, finally satisfied that her job had been done.

But it took a few paintings before I got there, each picked out from the multitude by Mercedes who pulled me from room to room, positioned me at different viewing points; forced my eyes to watch from doorways and corners and impossible angles to reveal strange aspects in seemingly ordinary pieces and opened a deep well of pure, unfettered emotional attachment to paintings I would have, save for her, observed politely before shrugging off.

As a rather unproductive writer, I can’t help but admire such a prolific artist as Picasso was. He produced thousands of works of art and was still painting in his 90s before he died. He had mastered and dismissed stuffy still life and angular, Renaissance perspectives by the time he was 17, although that’s not to say he didn’t admire the masters: El Greco, Matisse, Degas…he just liked them deconstructed and reformed through his own eyes.

Which is probably why I find it hard to appreciate his work, because he paints everything at once and it’s too much. Picasso saw that real people moved, and objects showed you their whole selves from every angle at once; not just a blank, prettily one dimensional facet. So his works became a multitude of positions and expressions all contained in one canvas. It’s confusing, it’s arresting, it’s bold and it’s what made him unique.

474PICASSO-POSTER 8,Jacqueline Seated

But it wasn’t Picasso’s reinterpretations of still life or inanimate objects that made me love him, that made me feel him. It was his women, which he talked about through the portraits he painted of them. And one woman in particular, Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina and his first wife.

They weren’t his most famous pieces and they certainly weren’t his most celebrated, but they were, to me, his most accessible and they were all tucked away in this little collection kept in his home town.

“I think about Death all time, it is as a woman who will never leave me.” – Pablo Picasso

It started with a painting that wasn’t actually of Olga, it was of one of Picasso’s later lovers, a photographer called Dora Maar. It’s her face that later became The Weeping Woman and it’s her screaming face I see in Picasso’s most famous piece: Guernica.

guernica3Guernica

“Look at her hands, fighting and clawed; look at her eyes, she is full of fear and pain.” Mercedes whispered to me.

457PMALAGA POSTER 3.Woman with Raised Arms

Her hands were up, tearing through the canvas. Her body was militated and deformed into a human wheel, her mouth open in an endless, unquenched scream. Her picture, while it seemed harmless enough at first, terrified me.

And then Mercedes showed me Olga.

Olga

Picasso married Olga in 1918 and they had a son, Paulo, together.

Later, Picasso started having an affair with a 17-year-old French girl called Marie-Thérèse Walter and she became pregnant. When Olga found out in 1935, she took Paulo and moved to France and asked for a divorce. Picasso refused to divide his property with her, despite the law, so they stayed legally married until she died from cancer in 1955.

Picasso didn’t attend her funeral.

6_fgOlga Khokhlova with a Mantilla, 1917

Wearing a classic Spanish Matiquilla Picasso makes a young Olga look cold, yet dewy and rosy.  She looks like she’s made from fresh cotton and the underside of a lily; untouched and clean. When Picasso looks at Olga in 1917, a year before they were married, she appeared pristine and perfect to him. This was Picasso’s Olga at the peak of their love, at the very beginning.

163TF-VOL1-CAT   9,Mother and Child, 1921

This painting might not even be specifically of Olga, but she was still his muse in 1921, which was the year she gave birth to their first son, Paulo.

Suddenly Olga has taken on a beatific, religious and almost regal air, She’s lost her almost waxy, floral glow and been replaced by a white holy fervour. Gazing fixedly at her child she looks like devotion incarnate.

She could be a renaissance oil masterpiece, a old madonna and from afar this painting makes her elegant, white and swanlike. But, as you step closer, creeping like grandmother’s footsteps,  her image mutates and she appears dumpy and squat up close, her body obscenely fat. There’s something almost cannibalistic in it, as if she’s drawing her bulk from Picasso to feed to the infant. His brush and paint devouring her image in return.

125

In the final painting I saw of Olga, she was transformed again. There was none of the florid prettiness of before or of the overt womanliness. There was just a pale woman with her head in her hands. The blue of her housecoat sapping her colours.

She and her painter no longer seem to like each other, their love has dimmed and all that’s left is this painful distance between canvas and eyes. She looks withered, all her original rosy softness has been carved away to this ivory boney lines, her plumpness deflated.

As Mercedes recounted the decline of Olga and Picasso’s love and marriage it all felt so unutterably sad and as she talked, my eyes begin to mist over and the blue of Olga’s coat swam in my eyes, burning through the water.

But it wasn’t just Olga’s portraits that made me finally fall for Picasso, it was all the paintings of his lovers, his muses, his wives.

It was his French ladies, painted feline and blue, all elongated and calm.

It was the pink and round paintings of Marie, flushed with youth and gleaming.

It was the depictions of ‘The Flower’, Françoise Gilot, her face wreathed in petals.

And it was his raw, sexual and strangely regal portraits of Jacqueline Roque.

It took all of Picasso’s women for me to finally love his work, to finally connect to it, although I couldn’t help but wonder as I left the cool shade of the Palacio de Buenavista, was it really Picasso that I loved or was it the women he loved through paint and portrait.

Malaga

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.

DSC_4919

HouseTrip, a Song for the Day & a Local Hero: Clapham Common’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Shalamar

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been busy working on a special project recently. This project has become very close to my heart, so you’ll have to forgive me if I keep banging on about it over the coming weeks!

DSC_4303DSC_4301

I’ve been working with HouseTrip.com to help project manage their Where to Stay Guide for London. Now this wasn’t your ordinary, bog-standard ‘you can do this, don’t forget to see this’ guide, these were personal, insider journeys all over London, written by some proper Londoners and London-lovers. So, 26 boroughs (yes we made a few up), five languages and near-on 88,000 words later, it’s live and you can delve into it here: housetrip.com/content/where-to-stay/london.

DSC_4030

It was long, gruelling and challenging, (have you ever tried to organise journalists plus photographers, translators and videographers to deadline? They don’t compare it to herding cats without reason) but it was also incredibly fun.

DSC_3945

I got to work with some fantastic London bloggers like Emily Gibson from Curious London, Fabienne Henry from Lost in London, Laura Porter from About.com London, Fiona Maclean from London Unattached, Julie Falconer – the lady behind A Lady in London – Donald Strachan and the lovely Zoe Hedges from The Z-Factor, whose individual guides you should check out immediately!

The last few weeks I’ve carried my camera and wandered around what feels like most of London. I’ve followed paths and alleyways I never knew existed, discovered buildings and parks I’ve never seen before, eaten cake EVERYWHERE and and met some fascinating people. I’ve learned a few important lessons like if you try to take a picture of the hard-as-nails looking florist in an undisclosed south London location she’ll give you the finger; and no matter how much I wish I did I DO NOT live in one of the town houses in Sloane Square and need to stop pretending I do as it makes the real owners uncomfortable.

It’s has forced me to re-evaluate areas I thought I knew, like my five-hour jaunt around Kensington following Fiona’s fantastic recommendations – and yes, we did spend about two hours drooling over the food in Wholefoods before getting lost in the tulips and wisteria of Holland Park, but don’t take my word for it, read her guide here: housetrip.com/content/where-to-stay/kensington.

DSC_3951

My guides were Lambeth, Chelsea, Wandsworth and Canary Wharf, but there was one thing that didn’t make it into my Lambeth guides that I regret – for some reason late night, drunken singing and fried chicken didn’t seem family-friendly enough!

I’m pleased to introduce the all-singing, all-singing Shalamar of Shalamar’s chicken near Clapham Common station – a local legend extraordinaire who, if he remembers you, will do his very own version of a Backstreet Boys hit, complete with interchangeable hats and some sick dance moves.

This video is shaky, loud, out-of-focus and taken at the end of a very long night (I’m really selling it here), so feel free to play the real soundtrack linked below from YouTube if you can’t bear the distinct background sounds of drunken caterwauling. Enjoy your 90s flashback, because it doesn’t get much better than this boy band classic…or at least it seemed that way a few drinks down!

Shalamar! from emma sleight on Vimeo.

In the next few weeks I hope to post more on my forays into London for HouseTrip, from star butchers and deserted skyscrapers to prostitute’s graveyards and hidden street signs – including all the photography that didn’t quite make it in to the official guides, like these from Lambeth that I’ve been dropping in!

DSC_4354

DSC_4333

Please do let me know if the guides feature one of your favourite places, or if we’ve manage to unearth a gem you didn’t know about…or even if you’ve seen Shalamar in action yourself!

Dubai Part Two: The Best Massage in the World at Raffles Dubai

“Breathe out Miss Emma, please. Three big breaths.”

I do as I am told, slowly and self-consciously.

“Is she looking at my spine alignment?”

“Is she monitoring my lung capacity?”

“Can she see my thighs wobbling under the crisp, white sheet?”

Shhh! I hiss at my subconscious as I breathe so deeply and thoroughly – scraping the depths of my woefully unexercised lungs – that I make myself light-headed. I open my eyes on the third breath like a naughty child to sneak a peek at what this ninja-footed, softly spoken therapist is up to only to realise that all she’s doing is letting my own breath warm her hands in preparation for my spa treatment. Oh.

I’ve always had this problem with spas. I have never reached that nirvana moment of happy gormlessness where your body and mind melt away leaving only the basest of instincts functioning: touch and sensation.

I’m always firmly in the room, listening to the plinky plonky music, worrying about the tension in my neck and anticipating the next painful jab as the masseuse digs their thumbs into my shoulder blades in a vain attempt to undo years of slouching in front of computers. I always leave scolding myself, berating myself with mantras: “I will sit up straight. I will go to yoga. I will stretch five times a day.” All forgotten, of course, the next time I’m on a deadline and hunched like a skeksis from the Dark Crystal, my face glowing a sickly ivory from the low light of my old laptop screen.

But then I have clearly never been to the right spa.

Raffles Spa Garden RetreatThe Raffles Dubai Spa was different. The setting was familiar, dimly lit, five-star reserved luxury, the air filled with the smell of mysterious unguents and the halls filled with clients, padding around in pristine dressing gowns like contented ghosts.

Sari, my tiny masseuse, had hands that felt like the inside of a lily. When she poured various oils into my palms to help me tailor-make my massage and later held and kneaded my fingers and wrists, it was like holding hands with an exquisite, finely-made doll.

I was about to have a hot stone massage with an oil that I had hand-picked and that smelled vaguely of oranges, frangipani and almond blossom. Sari told me I had chosen a relaxing oil and it was a good choice. Phew, good. First intimidating spa job done.

I had never had a hot stone massage before and had always thought that it looks and sounds silly – all those women in the pictures, blissfully face down with a line of rocks on their backs,  it never looked like my idea of a decent massage. What I stupidly didn’t realise is that they don’t actually sit lines of stones along your spine. It’s actually a far more physical and tactile experience where stones are heated and rubbed into your prepped and oiled skin and kneaded deep into the muscles like pushing flint into dough.

Sari started to move along my neck, which was rigid with a familiar tension, the tendons stretched like strings across a banjo, ready to snap at any moment. But Sari had fingers of granite and, despite saying she was going for light to medium pressure, pushed her hands into my screaming muscles, taking me to that embarrassing point when you’re about to release an inadvertent squeak of pain before easing off. If this was her light to medium pressure her hard must be like Medieval torture.

So far so expected. As she moved down my body, performing that strange but chaste massage striptease, revealing one limb at a time from the full body shroud, that irritating voice piped back up again.

“When did I last shave my legs?”

“I bet her last client was that supermodel with legs like Gisele Bünchen that’s sunbathing by the pool.”

“I hope she isn’t offended by my wonky big toes.”

Then I heard the clink of the stones and the first burst of contact heat spread across my neck like wildfire, blossoming into a rose-tinted glow as the warmth slowly faded and the stone continued its arc down the curled wing of my shoulder blade.

It was like touching a match to paper, singeing it and watching the heat eat away at the surface and slowly fade away. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was a sort of controlled pain that took me to the edge of wincing every time a new stone was applied and left me exhaling deeply as the fire dimmed. I had to remind myself that Sari was holding the stones, so they couldn’t possibly be as hot as I thought they were. But with my eyes closed, face down and blinded, I felt everything more.

All this might sound like I was straying into 50 Shades territory, but somewhere in the mixture of those hot stones and oil and Sari’s steely fingers, something remarkable happened. I stopped thinking about the slight bend in my spine. I stopped wondering if she could see any cellulite on my thighs. I almost forgot to breathe as I slipped into mindlessness.

Raffles Spa - Treatment Room

My brain went dark. Not blank, exactly, but as though someone had turned down the dimmer switch and all I could concentrate on was the slow swish of those stones, wait for the first pulse of heat and the feel of the heavy air on the rapidly cooling skin after the stone had carved its path on my flesh. For the next twenty minutes my whole world was the clink of changing stones and the soft padding of Sari’s feet across the tiled floor.

She cradled my head, supporting what must have been, by that point, a cannonball of dead weight as she pushed the remaining stones against and under my shoulder blades and draped a dark cloth across my eyes. Then, too soon, or it could have been hours later, she coughed delicately.

“Miss Emma, the massage is finished. I will leave the room while you get dressed and take you to the relaxation room.”

“Hmmm waaa? Yaaaa.” Was my articulate response.

And for the first time that I can remember I had to concentrate on reminding myself how to move my legs. It was like being half awake, in that space of sleep purgatory when your mind is active but your limbs haven’t quite caught up. Except this time there was no panic, no jolt, there was just liquid bones and a mind that was moving at the rate of a two-legged tortoise. Or Joey Essex on a good day.

Raffles Spa - Relaxation RoomAs I levered myself off the bed, I honestly thought that I might melt into a pool on the floor the moment I touched the ground, like a scene from Alex Mack. I didn’t, rather disappointedly, and was perfectly able to struggle into my clothes, even managing to remember how bra hooks worked, before floating and across the hall into a curtained room with nothing but tea, loungers and dried fruit.

I was given a about ten minutes to scoop my thoughts together before the absurdly handsome spa manager came to tell me that my friends were out and the chef was sending something to my room for afternoon tea. All I could manage was a wide, moronic smile and a heavy-headed nod, which probably made me look like a narcoleptic.

Raffles Spa - TherapistsNo words. I didn’t want to speak yet because I was scared that words would break the only spa spell I have ever been under and I wanted to hold onto it, just that little bit longer, before the world came rushing back in.

Raffles Spa focuses on rejuvenating treatments that are inspired by Asian, Middle Eastern and European traditions and is set within the Raffles Dubai Hotel in the Raffles Botanical Garden. The seven soothing treatment rooms, including a couple’s suite with private whirlpool and an outside retreat are open to guests of the hotel, members and non-members by appointment. See a list of the treatments on offer on their website here.

I had a 60 minute Traditional Hot Stone Massage, which costs £78.

For more information call the spa on +971 4314 9870 or Email spa.dubai@raffles.com.

Save Asa the Leopard Cub

Asa means ‘Hope’ in Nepali, although there doesn’t seem to be much hope for her at the moment.

She’s injured, although the circumstances remain unclear as to when and how. It was possible poaching, possibly a conflict incident somewhere in unpoliced Nepal, and there are no facilities in Pokhara where she can be properly cared for.

Jack, the wildlife conservationist and all round animal super hero that I talked about in a previous post (Faces not Places: The Peace Eye-ers) rushed to help Asa when he heard she has been brought to Pokhara, but without a medical centre or staff he’s almost powerless to  do anything to help her apart from patch her up and hope she survives.

IMG_8409-462x302

He released this update on WildTiger Conservation and Research website, wildtiger.org, this morning:

Jack Kinross here for WildTiger Conservation Research and Development.

This is an interim WildTiger Journal.  Less than two hours ago as I 
write this I was rushed to this little leopard cub in Pokhara.  My friend Himalayan Times journalist Krishna Baral was alerted to this leopard’s plight and I climbed aboard the back of Krishna’s motorbike not knowing what to expect.

So this is Asa.  The name means “Hope” and this is a situation where I 
have hope.  There is also another even smaller leopard cub there and 
I am realistic about its chances of survival, to be honest, not great.  I’ll 
be back in the morning to apply antiseptic to a flesh wound on the little one.

We don’t know the full story.  All we know is that we have two tiny 
leopard cubs on our hands.  Whether it was a conflict situation or a 
poaching incident, we can’t think about that right now, we just have to do the best possible,

There are no facilities here in Pokhara, Nepal, for these situations.  
Krishna and I are hell bent on changing that.  We initially need funds 
for treatment for the cubs and then hopefully a transfer to Kathmandu zoo.  The cubs are in a little shed at one of the Forest Service locations and it is far from ideal.

This situation occurs too often.  We need a facility here in Pokhara.  If 
you can help please do.  Even $1 is better than nothing.

I’ll update this page tomorrow… 

Thanks,

Jack.”

I know it’s incredibly cheeky to ask people to donate their hard-earned and fiercely-protected cash, but, if you have a spare couple of quid or could forgo your morning coffee and donate to help Jack and all the incredible work he does preserving Nepal’s wildlife, I know he would be hugely grateful.

If you’d like to donate, or just follow Asa’s progress, scroll to the bottom of Jack’s webpage, here.

IMG_8370-467x437

5/2/14 Update links at bottom of page
to help save Asa, a symbol of the future…
5/2/14 Update links as the battle to save Asa continues

Luoyang, Henan, China

1594_533096805302_2496_n
We seemed to be the only westerners in Luoyang when we visited. It was the middle of a bitter, Chinese winter and the further north we travelled the deeper the ice-laden wind cut.
1594_533096820272_3349_n
When we arrived at our hostel we realised it was a flat shared with the owner and his son in the centre of residential Luoyang. We found that we could only communicate through Google Translate, and, after a few false attempts he managed to tell us we should do three things here: eat steamed dumplings, see the Longmen Grottoes and take the local bus to the Luoyang Musuem – a mausoleum of Chinese antiquities and treasures.
1594_533096845222_4772_n

After two hours staring at jade, ivory and precious statues behind glass, we wandered back into the pale sunlight and straight into this gentleman. He sits, with his barrel of hot, roasted sweet potatoes, by the museum gates everyday, through summer and winter.

The smell of singed potato skin enticed us closer and, when he flashed us that smile we were powerless to resist. We left with handfuls of hot potato, warming our hands though our gloves for the bus home.
1594_533096875162_6506_n

If anyone is heading to Luoyang I would love to know if he is still there…

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Faces not Places: The Children of Gondar

602448_768909434902_1949340953_n

We stopped in Gondar, the gateway to the Simien Mountains, to stock up on food and essentials (namely a teapot) at the market and I was struck by how beautiful the children were and how genuinely pleased they were to have their picture taken.

Tourists in Gondar are becoming more of a common sight, yet they still retain a touch of the exotic to the local children who crowd round to wave and run along with you as you shop, occasionally, and optimistically, asking for chocolate or cash. I have never said hello more often or waved as much as I did when in Ethiopia, it almost felt like I was experiencing what the Royals must do in official visits. I now see the point in adopting the Queen’s gentle rotation wave to save one’s wrist.

Yes there was poverty in the dust-choked and litter-strewn streets, but there was also a sense of fun as the children posed for my camera and the gasped in delighted glee as I showed them their images painted onto the camera screen.

Here’re my favourites taken during the trip.

Faces not Places: The Peace Eye-ers

When travelling I’ve always found that the places where I meet interesting, inspirational or just downright insane people are the places that stick the most in my mind. It’s often their faces I remember, those wine-soaked nights out or the spontaneous deviations from travel plans that come from starting a conversation on a cross-border bus, being invited into a local’s home or bonding with a Brit over missing decent (and decently-priced) cheese in Asia (or America or Africa or Australia, actually).

They are often people that you’d never naturally meet at home, like finding an unexpected friend during a moment of hell during an activity that makes you realise you’ve bitten off far more than your muscles can actually chew or just before you jump out of a plane and it suddenly occurs to you that this was perhaps not your brightest idea.

From the 17-year-old backpacker’s high on Khao San Road’s cheap clothes and beer to the travelling forty-somethings, revelling in a mutual lust for food, travel and foreign culture or re-inventing themselves and their professions abroad or the pensioner on their last hurrah, blowing the kid’s inheritance on one last, intoxicating swoop around the globe. From the Nepalese chef and the Amsterdam-dwelling nomadic writer to the Norwegian dog mushers and Chinese potato sellers, pocket-sized Philadelphia line dancers and the Japanese business man who thew in the corporate towel and intended to spend his foreseeable future island hopping.

Faces not Places is my attempt to record and remember these people that put certain destinations on the map for me.

Peace Eye, Pokhara, Nepal

I’ve already mentioned The Peace Eye Guest House in a rose-tinted Review Postcard, but it’s worth repeating that for me, and for my then boyfriend, despite memories of Pokhara being made up of cloud-clogged skies, boat graveyards and seemingly endless rain, it was also where we meant some incredible travellers who brought colour to the grey scape.

boat grave

Billy
Billy never offered a surname and we never asked for one. He is and always will be, simply Billy, like Madonna, or Jesus. When we met him he claimed that my boyfriend and I were surrounded by an aura of love and he must be born in December (he is) and I must be born in the Spring (I’m not). He looked puzzled and shrugged, claiming that I must be from the southern hemisphere then because I definitely looked like Spring. Apparently Billy was a seriously big deal on the 90’s DJ scene and if his hollow, spaced-out eyes and jittery gestures were anything to go by then it’s clear that the decade wasn’t kind to him.

Billy was hired by a club in Nepal to do their new year’s eve gig – techno, trance and dance have taken a firm, throttling grip on the Nepalese music scene … that and Beiber anyway. Billy never left Nepal and can be found either philosophising in Peace Eye, stoically playing chess in a herbal haze outside the distinctly lascivious Bar Santana, or physically coercing customers into buying his beer.

Tim
pictur159Tim is a sardonic American writer whose speech has a touch of the Bill Murray drawl. He grew up in Indiana in the conservative American Mid-West and, against his mother’s wishes (she still refuses to read his books in protest), he quit his job as a teacher and left with his wife to cycle around the world. He has been travelling for nine years and claims he can’t go back for another four, until his mortgage on his house is paid off back in America. So he drifts from place to place writing travel journals and self publishing them. You can read about his exploits at downtheroad.org

He was full of happy little tales like the time his wife went into an ashram in the foothills of India and never came back out. The last time I saw him they were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. He offered me nuggets of wisdom gleaned from his years of travelling such as: ‘You’ve got to always look for the Adam’s apple man’ and ‘Every Euro girl needs a crazy American Uncle. It’s just the law.’

Jack
Jack is a Kiwi conservationist who seems to have lived in every continent on the planet and still maintains an insatiable wanderlust and genuine passion for exploration. He seemed to be El Capitan of Peace Eye, the ‘Red’ of Shawshank – all requests or queries went through him, he’s a man who knows people and who can get things. He shepherded and welcomed new comers, drawing them into his close-knit, random collection of friends. He works with wild tigers.org helping to protect and cultivate habitats and national parks and to stop illegal trading and poaching of wild animals in northern Nepal and across South East Asia. He is like the BFG, 6’5 and can be frequently found hunched at his ‘desk’ in the Peace Eye coffee lounge, huge hands tapping away at his tiny netbook, planning his next escape back into his natural habitat.
Jack

Cecile
Jack’s ‘Petit Croissant.’ The delightfully French Cecile was Parisian, without the pretence or the intimidating polish. She was reluctant to talk about her work and was pleasingly mysterious in her conversation. All I knew was she didn’t have to go back to work for another year and was about to visit her pregnant sister in Spain. Cecile gave up TV eight years ago and read voraciously instead. You’d often find her curled up with a book near the fire in Peace Eye, or softly talking with Jack in the corner, sharing plates of cheese and bottles of Chilean wine, smoke from her imported cigarettes curling around them as she giggled to punctuate each carefully phrased sentence: Je ne sais quoi doled out in snatches.

Paul
Paul looked like the outdoors. His skin was burned nut-brown from endless exposure to the elements. He was built like the knotted trees of Pokhara and smelt of sickeningly good health (he is a tea-total, vegetarian, non-smoker whose only vice is coffee). He comes from Hackney and trains TV camera crews and presenters to climb mountains and prepare for wildlife and adventure documentaries. Essentially he is personal trainer of the extreme sports variety and is, naturally, astonishingly fit. He casually mentioned that he had been to base camp – this is supposed to take 14-16 days – three times in two weeks. It only took him four days each time. Paul was an interesting bag of secrets who disappeared one morning without a warning or goodbye.

There were others who drifted in and out: Simon the middle-aged Palestinian who came to Pokhara to learn to para glide and who had just been reunited with his adopted son who grew up in Amsterdam. Katrine, the Danish student studying for her masters in molecular biology who came to climb mountains and Shieran, the then-owner of Peace Eye who yearned to play the guitar. He had a brilliant back catalogue of old rock, jazz and blues including Nora Jones, Eva Cassidy, Django Reinheart, Bob Dylan and Johnny  Cash and spent all day baking bread and brownies.

cinnamon roll

Peace Eye became our rose-tinted bubble, vaguely anaesthetised and tinged with gold. The prospect of leaving it and venturing out into the big, scary expanse of greater Pokhara seemed a terrifying prospect. I felt like the Lady of Shallot there, looking out of the windows, observing and documenting the passing world beyond the wooden frames without ever touching it, never leaving for fear of dying on the outside.

Peace Eye

We would venture out in groups to have lunch and read by the open fires in the restaurants along the river front: Mexican food in Maya against a moody soundtrack thrumming with bass and trumpets like a Frank Miller movie, fiery cocktails with names like ‘Monk’s Ruin’ and Mango Madness’ that burnt away brain cells in Love Kush, drinking beer and listening to abysmal Nepalese cover bands butchering Queen and Nirvana songs while drunk Russians formed mosh pits at Busy Bees.

Time slipped then stuck there in a vacuum of blank space but that hollow feeling that comes with wasted time was strangely absent. I was content to sit, to talk and to rest as the days faded and until the light retreated and the lanterns appeared. It was fabulous inertia, drug-like and soporific.

Of course all good things come to an end and mine ended one night with the return of a familiar bite of melancholy and itchy feet. There was a cyclical pattern to being with these people of WANT NEED HAVE WANT. I wanted to travel, so I did, but it wasn’t enough. There was always this debilitating sense of inadequacy, of insatiable and infuriating restlessness. I wanted to go and save tigers in Badia like Jack. I wanted to climb mountains in Patagonia like Paul. I wanted to live in Paris like Cecile and immerse myself in my own idea of being French; of drinking pernod and café au lait and swearing in thick, lyrical français. I WANT I WANT I WANT.

These people seemed aeons older than me. They were essentially roamers but they had jobs, reasons and responsibilities for being in Nepal and in Pokhara, and I envied them that – that complete assurance in their own purpose. As Jack whispered to Cecile as he hugged her goodbye at the bus station: ‘We both knew it had to end, this was part of the plan.’ But I’ll always have Peace Eye and all those who stayed with me.
Lake View

Gondar Market, Ethiopia

Crowds at Gondar Market
At first glance down town Gondar is just an intimidating, urban sprawl of markets, metalwork and moving bodies gathered around the 300 year old monuments and castle ruins, but on closer inspection it’s a thriving hub of activity, a dynamo of trade and full of the some of the friendliest, and photogenic people you’ll meet in Ethiopia.

Every week, hordes of traders gather to to sell anything and everything from batteries to cotton knickers and kettles at Kidame Gebya.

There’s a sort of ramshackle garlic alley where women sit shelling impossibly daunting piles of garlic bulbs on woven mats; spice racks where pouches of shimmering powders and seeds are handled like gold dust and men who stride through the traffic clutching broomsticks covered in live chickens with bound feet and fever-pitched eyes.

Chicken Sellers in Gondar

Boy in Gondar

 

Grab a fistful of coins, get swamped by the crowds and take a break from the castle district in Gondar in this labyrinth of poultry, mud, children and sugarcane. You might end up leaving with more than you bargained for – such as a pocket full of garlic, a poorly printed Che Guevara T-shirt or a goat – but it certainly beats the traditional, weekend Sainsbury’s shop.