Summer Reading: Florence’s readers recommend…

In the absence of Rachel (whilst she is on maternity leave getting acquainted with her beautiful baby daughter Alice,) I thought it would be fun and fascinating to get some reading recommendations from you, the Florence Finds readership, for summer holiday reads. I asked followers on Twitter and Facebook to send in a short paragraph reviewing their favourite recent reads and I know I have made a subsequent purchase or two as a result – I hope you all find something you fancy too.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning…..” This is how The Night Circus starts and within a couple of pages it reels you in and doesn’t let you go until the end. It’s actually quite difficult to write about without giving the story too much, but suffice to say I loved it. The entire book is woven around the circus, the amazing magical circus that’s quite unlike any other circus. But this is not where the story begins and there’s a parallel narrative about a challenge that underpins the circus it’s self and this is what drives the story forward, until it all collides together. It’s so beautifully written, so descriptive and evocative you feel like you live in that world and know the characters, as if you might bump into them on the street. Or wake up one morning to see the circus in your local park. One of aspects of the story I most enjoyed is that it’s not light and fanciful. It’s imaginative, full of magic and vivid descriptions but there’s a tangible darkness to the story and it’s not afraid to be quite bittersweet at times, which makes the story feel far more real than it might have otherwise done. I was lucky enough to be given this book by someone and I’m so grateful that she did, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

– Reviewed by Zan @foxysynt

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

I heard about this book on Twitter – it was recommended with the caveat that it is quite difficult to read in parts. It’s a thriller set in Chicago where a serial killer – a misfit called Harper Curtis – somehow gets access to a house that allows him to travel around in time, from the 1920s to the early 1990s. He hunts out his ‘Shining Girls’ – women who have a spark – at different points in their lives and eventually kills them. Except for one victim, who escapes him and becomes determined to track Harper down. The book’s chronology (necessarily) jumps around quite a lot – apart from the subject matter it actually reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife in that respect – so particularly in the beginning you need to concentrate. The story is really well written and tense, despite the different timelines. As soon as I finished it I wanted to go back and read it again as I’m sure there were clues and details I missed the first time round. Some of the violent scenes are hard to read (the author has said that she wanted them to be so because murder shouldn’t be something that is easy to read about) but even with that in mind I would really recommend this as a well written thriller – the time travel doesn’t detract from the story and actually gives it an extra layer of tension.

– Reviewed by Katy W @KatyWells1

The White Princess – Phillipa Gregory

For those that haven’t been watching Phillipa Gregory’s Sunday night drama, The White Queen, what have you been doing? The books, although you can read them independently, form part of a mini series covering different periods of history. The most recent series, the Cousin’s Wars, covers the period during the War of the Roses. The author tends to view the period through another, lesser known, female character, adding a twist to contradict popular opinion. The first book, The Lady of the Rivers, is followed by a three way version of events covering the Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort, the White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville and the Kingmakers daughter, Anne Neville.

The latest book (although you should read the whole series because they are awesome) is The White Princess, which follows Princess Elizabeth of York (it seems that there are a lot of Elizabeths), daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen. The end of the White Queen sees Elizabeth’s lover, Richard III die by the hand of Henry Tudor, whom she then marries, thereby uniting the houses of York and Lancaster in a union brought about by the respective mothers’ Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth’s brothers’ Princes Edward and Richard were supposedly taken to the tower and killed on the order of either Richard III, her former lover, or the Red Queen – also our Princess’ mother in law, Margaret Beaufort (my money is on the pushy mother in law). The story focuses on the idea that the White Queen (who I like less and less on the BBC One drama as we go on – also pushy,) smuggled out the younger son, Richard, to be raised in Flanders, keeping him waiting for the day he will come back and reclaim his throne from the pretender, Henry VII and his wife who is, you’ll remember, our White Princess. Will Elizabeth choose to protect her Tudor childrens’ inheritance, or remain true to the House of York and the true claimant to the throne?

This is perfect for holidays because its not intellectual in the slightest (once you get your head around all of the Elizabeths,) but is more substantive than the usual genre of chick lit. Go Forth and Buy it Now.

– Reviewed by Becca @BeccanotTBTMMO

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
I think Kate Atkinson is my favourite author of all time and her latest release, Life After Life, is my new favourite book, replacing her earlier book Behind the Scenes at the Museum. It’s hard to review Kate Atkinson’s work as she’s such an amazing writer and her books are often so peculiar, but amazing, that it’s hard to do it justice, but I’ll try:

If you’ve read her stuff before you’ll be familiar with the idea of a quirky story that requires you to leave, let’s call it “reality” behind. Ursula lives her liver over and over again, from 1910 until the late sixties, meeting various untimely ends along the way. In each updated version of her life, minor adjustments are made here and there until we end up face to face with a key figure in modern history. With the opportunity to change the world and its future, not to mention her own fate, I was sucked in to Ursula’s home, her family and her journey over and over again and hungry to know more. From the first page you know exactly where we were headed but what’s exciting is to see how we get there and more importantly how, and if, we can move on from there.

I loved this book not just because it displays Atkinson’s sparkling, witty and unique writing style, or because of the delicious oddity of her stories, but also because it’s set against a period of history that we know well and it so really made me think. It spurred me to speak at length with my brother (a passionate amateur historian) my father (an avid reader of New Scientist) and spend hours reading about modern history and scientific theorems. It’s not often I find books funny, touching, gripping, philosophical and perhaps even a little scientific all in one.

– Reviewed by Victoria – Sugar Plum Slipper

Thank you so much to Zan, Katy, Becca and Victoria for sending in their reviews. Now it’s over to you guys, do you agree with them or do you have another book you can recommend?

Don’t forget, if you would like to contribute to a future round up of fab reads, just send in a short paragraph or two to hello@florencefinds.com.

Happy reading folks!

Love,
Rebecca
xo

Girl About Town: London, High and Low

London: standing up high

I work in Canary Wharf and although people say it’s not “proper London” (pah!) I love it for many reasons, one of them being the beautiful views I enjoy day in day out of the London skyline, especially at sunset. From this vantage point, I watched The Shard emerge from its foundations near London Bridge on to the London skyline and then creep its way in to the sky, overtaking the City’s high-rise towers and iconic landmarks to become the “tallest building in Western Europe”. I became rather fond of its glassiness, boastfulness and “Shardiness” in my eye line out across my favourite city, so it was a foregone conclusion that as soon as it was open I’d be in the (online) queue for tickets to visit the viewing platform.

And so a week ago, with my family in tow, I found myself in the queue for The View at The Shard at the front gate ready for our time slot.

Entry is timed in half hour slots, presumably to control the flow of people and prevent overcrowding at the top, but also to increase the “experience” factor. It’s much cheaper to book these slots in advance online so do plan ahead, but if you have a spare £100 in your back pocket, they will grant you a “let me in immediately” pass.

Anyone that’s been to Disneyland or a theme park will immediately recognise the anticipation tactics they employ during the entry procession (and some health and safety reasons too, of course) – checking of the tickets, metal detectors, searches, scanning of the tickets, switch-back roped-off queuing, theme park ride music piped in to the cool, dark, themed spaces in which you wait for the lifts, all overseen by the most non-London-but-very-Disneyland staff who are cheerful, helpful, upbeat, knowledgeable, friendly, happy and willing to engage in small talk with their charges. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that some of them even initiated it!

*Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in London anymore…*

Two sets of lifts and a stair case (wear big knickers – you can see straight up the skirts of the people above you!) and you enter the panoramic viewing platform.

Loving London as much as I do, it literally took my breath away. I’ve gazed from the top of much higher buildings but I wasn’t looking down on my beloved London. Despite being incredibly scared of heights I loved it.

In terms of the main viewing area, there are faux “telescopes” dotted around with electronic screens for you to pick your views (day, dusk, night and live), scan the horizon, zoom in on buildings, attractions and areas and click on information links for more detail. Also on each window are icons of the famous landmarks found if looking in that direction. Helpful for someone like me that navigates London via my photographic-memory-recall of the Tube map alone and a constant recital of “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” to get my bearings!

Also exciting is that, as a purpose built viewing platform, no view up, out, left or right is blocked. In fact it’s built so that you can almost look directly down underneath your feet… if you are mad/brave enough to do so. Therefore, we were able to see straight down in to the beer garden in which, only moments before, we had been staring up at The Shard whilst enjoying a last minute pint and a Pimm’s to help my dad pluck up the courage! It was a little bit surreal.

For me, what really sets The View from The Shard apart from the other viewing platforms in the city, such as 30 St Mary Axe (aka The Gherkin) and Tower 42 is the next level up – the same view, but open to the elements! 72 floors above the street and you can feel fresh air on your skin. For me, working in air conditioned glass towers for the last six years, the feeling is utterly bizarre.

Seeing that my poor father was sweating buckets with fear we took pity and headed out to order a glass of celebratory fizz in one of the two bars (slightly lower in the tower), we were however scuppered in our attempt by a very strict door policy and refused entry on the basis that I was wearing flip flops (they were strappy leather flats!) and Mr G was wearing shorts (it was 28 degrees!) so we took ourselves to All Bar One next door instead… and happily saved ourselves a quid or two!

In summary, it’s a great way to view the city, spot famous London landmarks, get your bearings and appreciate the sheer size of our sprawling capital. But, I think £25 is steep for essentially standing at the top of a sky scraper. If you want more of a special experience, or want to enjoy the view in a more refined manner, my recommendation would be to book dinner at either Hutong* or Oblix* and put that £25 towards some pricey cocktails instead, blag your way to the top of The Gherkin or book a table at Duck and Waffle or Tower 42 instead and enjoy a glass of bubbly with your view!

*NB I’ve tried neither Hutong or Oblix due to my unfortunate shoe situation, so I have no idea on the quality and prices – if you go – let me know!

London: standing down low

In keeping with the theme of standing for a view, as well as standing and looking down, I also did some standing and looking up.

I’ve long fantasised about seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, because it’s my favourite of the Bard’s plays and it feels only right to see it in such authentic-feeling surroundings.

Add to this, my long standing obsession with seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at midnight and I had no qualms with booking standing tickets in order to make my dream come true. For years I’ve missed out on the one-off show they put on around the Summer Solstice so this year I was tipped off by a friend-of-a-friend at a Midsummer Night’s Dream themed wedding (not a coincidence!) and managed so get some of the last few tickets.

I’ve never been to the Globe before and I was as excited about the setting as I was the play itself. A modern glass exterior leads you through in to a replica Elizabethan open air theatre with wooden seating, a yard for us plebs to crowd in to and a raised, covered stage with beautiful detailing. It would have felt magical at any time of day but arriving in the dark, as the previous audience were heading home for bed, was utterly enchanting.

Like I said, sadly we didn’t have seats so I was slightly worried about having to stand up for over three hours, but in the run up to the evening, Globe theatre aficionados informed me that standing is the best way to see a play there. I wasn’t convinced at the start but really I needn’t have worried. I’ve done longer stints standing at festivals, concerts, on stage myself, and all in less comfy shoes so it wasn’t so bad at all really and in the end I was so engaged and invested in what was happening on the stage I barely noticed that I wasn’t seated. I think I could have been wearing five inch stilettos and I’d still have stayed until the very end. At 11.59, prompt, a band of Ye Olde Englishe musicians came out and played some Ye Olde Englishe folk music to set the scene, and from the first note at the open, to the last hum at the close I was spell bound. I laughed out loud, I grinned, I gasped and I sighed as the hugely talented actors brought Shakespeare’s words to life. In the spine-tingling finale, as the fairies bless the temple, tears pricked my eyes and goosebumps appeared on my skin with the emotion… and perhaps just a little fatigue!

Sadly they only do one midnight show a year, so get your mouse hand ready for next year, but in the meantime, if you love the play I’d highly recommend seeing this version, it’s on until October!

I’d also recommend dinner at The Swan before or after the show for some tasty dishes and a reasonably priced set menu but mainly for the stunning view of St Paul’s across the river.

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl about Town… with a Boy

By now you all know Victoria and I don’t usually butt in on her posts but today I couldn’t help myself. I don’t know about a boy, but this might just be my most perfect day out ever. I am so going to be visiting these hotspots next time I’m in the big smoke. Thanks Victoria!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m a bit of a girly girl. Which means that when I’m out and about attempting to be a Girl About Town my eye is drawn by the girliest of locations, my interest is piqued by the pretty, my attention is grabbed by the glitzy and my appetite is whetted by sugar and spice and all things nice.

Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m leaving the Mister out of all the fun so every now and again I look for things a bit less frou-frou and frilly and with a slightly more manly edge so he can come along. To that end, I’ve pulled some of my recent slightly-less-girly exploits together in to one man-friendly post that could form the basis of a whole day out or just a quick date or catch up with the man in your life, be he your husband, boyfriend, brother, father or even the next door neighbour who did some of your “Blue Jobs” and now you owe him a drink*.

Let’s start at the beginning (a very good place to start) with breakfast, or in fact…

Brunch at The Wolseley

It’s not just for boys, but I think the old-school opulence and masculine colours and décor makes for a great setting to get a special day out started. Eating breakfast in such grandeur feels rather Bruce Wayne/Sports Superstar/other male “icon”-cool.

Mr G is a bit of an eggs benedict aficionado and I’ve eaten my fair share of American-style pancakes (with berries, maple syrup and crispy bacon, of course) in my time, so we know our stuff and I think we both whole heartedly agreed that it was one of the best breakfasts we’d eaten in the UK. The service, quality and prices were everything you’d expect from such a well known restaurant, but equally it’s not as stuffy or expensive as you’d think. We went on a weekday and it had a bustly, buzzy atmosphere with suited-and-booted corporate meetings, obvious regulars looking dapper and reading the business pages at their usual tables and a few (slightly) famous faces having discreet catch ups. Be sure to book in advance for the weekend as they get very busy.

After Brunch, my second favourite meal of the day is Afternoon Tea (Dinner, Lunch, Midnight Feast and Breakfast being third, fourth, fifth and sixth respectively). Traditionally, or at least as far as I’ve experienced, afternoon tea is always a very feminine affair. Dinky sandwiches, light-as-air patisserie, miniature scones and tea and fizz scented with floral aromas served in girly surroundings on delicate china. Afternoon tea is not often top of Mr G’s list of things to do. Until now…

Burger afternoon tea at BRGR.co Soho

Milk and sugar with your tea madam? Not here – American style iced tea, thank you very much!

Cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off? Nope – a trio of sliders (lobster, chicken and beef) and a portion of fries, complimented by BBQ sauce, burger relish and mustard.

Scones with jam and cream? Nuh-uh – how about a bowl of creamy vanilla milkshake. Yum.

Your choice of cake from the sweet trolley? Save it for next time – I’d prefer a selection of mini desserts thank you very much. Specifically, a salted caramel “doughnut hole” (sorry – that should probably be “donut hole” in here), a brownie and a de-constructed raspberry cheesecake.

Glass of fizz to accompany your treats? Well… if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Yes please!

Situated in Soho, literally just off Oxford Street, I knew it’d be a super-cool venue as the name of the restaurant contained no vowels! We were a large group and I don’t queue so I booked a table in advance for a Sunday afternoon as they don’t take Saturday bookings. The style and decor is simple, modern and understated, but colour is injected here and there with kitsch cow heads mounted on the walls. These are designed by artists, designers, celebrities and creative individuals and auctioned for charity. Click here to check out the hall of fame, or to submit an idea for your own. We were seated in front of the open kitchen and bar so there was some added theatre to the dining experience. The service was brilliant, in fact almost up to US standards, and the afternoon tea price was, in my opinion, a complete bargain!

After taking your fill of brunch and burgers (with maybe a short break in between for some culture, walking, sightseeing or shhhh, shopping?) what about a trip to the cinema to see a boy-friendly film? But not just any cinema..

The Electric Cinema:

Situated on Portobello Road, maybe a five or ten minute walk from Notting Hill Gate tube, The Electric Cinema is definitely the coolest place I’ve ever been to watch a film. The foyer feels like a cross between a ticket tent for a circus and a Victorian grocery shop, with a small booth in the corner to collect your tickets, a wall lined with wooden drawers full of traditional penny sweets and a vintage till at the Electric Donuts stand.

After loading up on goodies it’s straight in to the auditorium, full of squidgy red leather armchairs, love seats at the back, and double beds in the front row. Each seat has its own little polished table (no arguing over the cup holders), a vintage-style lamp and a leather footstool (no putting your feet on the chair in front and being told off by an usher), which contained a cosy cashmere blanket for each person and has space to store your belongings. Not really something that the boys will care about, but this made me squeal with delight as I always take an over-sized scarf or pashmina to the cinema with me to snuggle under or hide behind during the scary/gross bits, and I refuse to put my handbag on the sticky, dirty floor, instead clutching it on my lap all through the film. How very civilised!

There is a bar at the back of the auditorium which serves alcoholic beverages and yummy snacks, so your boy can kick back with a movie, a beer and a hot dog like he’s in his own living room… the living room he’d have in his Bruce Wayne/Sports Superstar/other male “icon” mansion, of course.

There are minimal pre-film adverts, so be on time, with just one or two that fit the profile of the main showing and then in to the usual, but in fact, unusual, “housekeeping” about phones off, exits, drinks/snacks and where to find the rather pretty loos. Pay attention to this bit – there are some fun surprises!

It’s not cheap, but for the experience of watching a special film in style, it’s worth every penny. After the film, if brunch, afternoon tea and Electric Donuts haven’t filled you up, you can head next door to…

Electric Diner for a late dinner:

The menu is full of simple but tasty American diner-style treats and the short but sweet drinks list contains some powerful cocktail concoctions, alongside a variety of beers and wines. I chowed down on a super-tasty cheeseburger with a shared side of fries, broccoli and the tastiest, juiciest bacon I’ve eaten in a long time washed down with a Grey Goose le Fizz (Vodka, elderflower, lime and soda). I’d highly recommend the lot!

*Apologies for the slightly anti-feminist statement there, but you know what I mean, some things are just meant for boys to do and I’m always eternally grateful to the men in and around my life for stepping in when Mr G is unavailable. This mainly involves being rescued from arachnids or collected from train stations that are not my intended destination after (ahem) missing a stop here and there late at night.

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town gets Out of Town: Roma

This month I was going to write about a recent glamping excursion to Jollydays in Yorkshire, but I realised that Rebecca had already done that. So I racked my brains trying to think about something exciting from the past four weeks to tell you about. I’ve been to plenty of bars and restaurants, but none of them could have filled a whole post. Then I remembered that I was taking a work trip for an event in Rome. Granted, the places we visited were a bit out of my usual personal price range but they were great, so for a special weekend break I’d definitely recommend them. I’ll certainly be re-visiting the city with Mr G (and his credit card) in tow.

In a similar style to my Dublin piece I’ll open with one or two recommendations for eating, drinking, sleeping and exploring and then I’d love you guys to pitch in with some of your own!

Where I stayed
The event was for a rather large group of people, and we required conferencing space so that ruled out most of the city centre hotels, due to their age and size. The central hotels in Rome are much smaller and tend to have less on-site event space, so we stayed just outside of the city at the Rome Cavalieri. A grand hotel in a traditional style, full of super-sized art work, furniture you can’t sit on, relics, artefacts and sculptures that make you jump at every corner – especially in the dark after only a few hours of shut eye, and a flute or two of bubbly! My favourite pieces were glass cases in one of the lift lobbies that contained the actual Rudolf Nureyev costumes from a staging of Giselle. He was surprisingly tiny!

Because it’s out of town guests also benefit from a resort feel at the hotel, with an indoor pool (part of the impressive spa) and a large outdoor pool set in beautiful gardens, overlooked by a lovely patio area – perfect for al fresco cocktails before heading in to the city for dinner. The view from the rooms is also amazing, stretching right across the city to the famous Seven Hills.

We made use of this view, taking lunch and breakfast on the roof terrace and it really is breathtaking. There’s a reason that this hotel, and specifically the top floor, is home to La Pergola, Rome’s only three Michelin starred restaurant. Needless to say, the closest I got to dining in here was when I stood outside it, with some Haribo (that I had packed for those low-blood-sugar-stress-out-moments) peering through the gap in the doors.

Shuttle buses from the hotel operate free of charge and frequently in to the city centre, so despite being a little bit out of the action, you’re never far from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

Before my big event kicked off, we had to stay in a smaller, city centre hotel as the Cavalieri was full to bursting with ATP tennis players. (Yes I did spend a vast proportion of my [very little] free time scouting the halls for them. And yes I did spy one, from afar). We stayed in a much more budget-friendly hotel closer to the city centre which was at the other end of the design scale entirely. Modern in style and compact in design, the Hotel Metropolis is walking distance to some of the city’s main sights and a great choice for a long weekend.

Where I drank
All over the place, and whenever I could, basically! I’m a big prosecco lover, and it was a very stressful weekend!

In terms of an actual recommendation, you can’t beat the Hotel de Russie, one of Rome’s most famous hotels, and it’s beautiful courtyard gardens for a swish drink, some posing and some people watching! Set between the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps it’s right in the heart of the action. The drinks aren’t cheap, but the setting, the service and the styling make for a special evening out,especially if you have something to celebrate. Also, if you fork out for a couple of drinks, you can save some cash and skip dinner with the amount of freebie snacks they bring out! We ordered some Italian cocktails and then gorged ourselves on fresh mozzarella and crudities, spicy meatballs, gigantic juicy green olives and small salty black ones, deep fried polenta and still-warm foccacia with oil.

The vibe is elegant, but with a funky air as the mixologists fling their shakers about to the sounds of a DJ, ensconced in a balcony high up on the wall, not too dissimilar to that famous one in Verona…

Where I ate
I tried to pick between three restaurants but I couldn’t pick a favourite, so I’ll recommend the three but I’ll keep it brief!

Something fancy: Casina Valadier is set in the Borghese Gardens, and is an old private residence, converted to a beautiful restaurant and event space. The décor, location and view are all so beautiful it made me want to fly all my friends and family out to renew my wedding vows. Speaking to some locals, it seems that Casina Valadier is something of an institution, and all “special” evenings out in the city start with aperitifs in the gardens, overlooking the cityscape. Take your camera!

Something traditional: Antica Pesa is a little bit out of the way, in one of the oldest parts of the city, Trastevere, set amongst old crumbling buildings, windy streets and cobbled paths, but it was worth the taxi ride. A lobby literally covered in photos of famous faces (James Bond through to Taxi Driver, via Sharon Stone and Will Smith – who both sent hand written notes) suggests it’s going to be a good night! The service was brilliant, the wine list was longer, bigger and heavier than the Bible (we took a recommendation!) and a menu full of traditional dishes and local ingredients all eaten in the courtyard, under the stars, made for a wonderful meal. What absolutely made my evening however, was when I chose a “traditional Roman picnic” as my starter and, expecting a plate of antipasti, was amazed when an artist’s case came out. I actually did I little squeal. I love an innovative serving suggestion!

Something modern: Molto, located in the upmarket Parioli area of the city, is contemporary and stylish. Pre-drinks on the decking outside with some nibbles (local parmigiano dipped in lavender honey. Swooooon), and then modern Italian cuisine in the trendy, black and white interior made for a perfect evening. There are wine bottles lining the walls at one end of the restaurant, a sleek bar at the other end, and slap bang in the middle, a big food station where they slice the cold meats, mash potatoes and plate up your pasta.

What I did
Of course there are the usual recommendations to visit the main tourist attractions, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Sistene Chapel, Colosseum, Vatican City, Pantheon, Borghese Gardens, the Roman Forum and the giant “Wedding Cake” (which my dad used to tell me about as a child – and was most disappointed to see when I finally visited Rome for the first time as a teenager!), the famous Piazzas Navona, del Popolo and della Repubblica and of course the famous streets of Via dei Condotti, Via del Babuino and Via Veneto with their bars, restaurants, designer shops and cafes.

You can read about those in any guide book, and I suggest you pay them all a visit if you have time.

Having been to Rome before though, the best recommendation I was given for this trip was to visit Eataly. You may have heard about them as they are popping up all over the world, they are basically enormous food courts-come-marketplaces-come-cookery schools, you can park outside, pick up a basket (or a trolley, depending on how big your case is) and spend a good few hours shopping for fresh, local produce and traditional Italian foodstuffs, taste-testing your way around the various stalls and stations and then stopping for a bite to eat in one of the restaurants, and even book yourself in for a cookery lesson or some wine tasting. Located about 15 minutes from Fiumicino airport, you could stop by on your way home…

… and eat it all on the plane.

Ooops. 😉

So, ladies, do you have any Roman recommendations? (Ed’s note – I’d particularly love to hear any more hotel recommendations you have!)

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town: Eat, Drink and Sleep Dublin Guide

I constructed this post on the basis that there are two long weekends on their way (thank god!) and you lovely ladies might be looking for an idea for a weekend break.

I made a trip to Dublin in December to visit my cousin Jo, who is currently residing (and occasionally studying) at Trinity College. We managed to pack a lot in to three and a half days but I thought I’d make a suggestion for a place to stay, a place to drink, a place to dine and an activity and then open the floor (what is the blog equivalent in that saying? Keyboard?) for your suggestions as I’m sure there are many of you that know the city well.

So let’s kick off with Where we stayed:

We chose the Trinity Capital Hotel as it was directly opposite Trinity College where my cousin lives. We originally booked it, on recommendation, for logistical ease but it turned out to be a great choice.

The styling is eccentric and it felt like a cross between an early 20th century safari lodge, a Lewis Carroll book and, well, I can’t find any other word for it than imaginarium, really. The lobby and reception areas are filled with (faux) animal skins, gigantic chaise longes, racks of vintage luggage and super-sized arms chairs in sumptuous jewel-coloured velvets. The deep purple walls are adorned with beautiful maps, old and new, every pillar and alcove glitters with tiny mosaic tiles and gilded frames.

Matching black and white baby grand pianos sit in the middle of the lounge, huge mirrors invite you to walk down corridors that don’t exist, gargoyles of what looked like the cast of The Life of Pi perched on the roof outside my window and life-sized camel statues were waiting patiently for the summer to return so they have some company in the central courtyard.

It was one quirky hotel and I loved it! Such a great choice and I’ll definitely be going back. For a twin room in December it was approximately €150 per night, it’s walking distance to all the main areas of the city and, if you catch the bus from the airport to the city centre, it’s a stone’s throw case drag from the bus stop. We paid €12 per person per day for the breakfast buffet and I feel that it was worth the money for the selection and convenience.

We drank quite a few pre-drinks and nightcaps in the hotel as well, as the lounge sofas were just so squashy and inviting. The list isn’t extensive but the cocktails were reasonable for a city centre hotel bar and were tasty.

It’s also worth noting that my aunt, upon check in, was upgraded to a suite. Apparently the check in system picked her at random that day (they do one a day as standard), so that’s one to hope for, if you visit!

Another recommendation was La Stampa, but it was a bit out of my budget for that weekend. Has anyone stayed there? Was it worth a visit?

Where we ate

On our last night, after a trip to the theatre, we followed a recommendation to try The Pig’s Ear and we weren’t disappointed. We arrived at the hot pink door under a black and white striped canopy (how much did I love?) quite late in the evening but the staff were more than accommodating in finding us a table and talking us through the daily offering.

The menu was short but full of tasty dishes served in inventive ways and it was such a cosy setting it almost felt like we were eating at an old friend’s house. The best bit however was when I ordered a cup of tea at the end of the meal. I didn’t think there was a way to be inventive when serving tea. I was wrong! Too cute…

Where we drank:

Jo used the months leading up to our visit to trial a number of bars to take us to, one of which was 37 Dawson Street. This was by far my favourite drinking establishment of the trip. In the same style as the hotel, it was full of quirky artefacts with bemusing drawings and crazy taxidermy adorning the walls, vintage furniture upholstered in a patchwork of clashing colours and a neon sign proclaiming that “All is not what it seems”.

It seems that there is now a cocktail list available but when we visited, they were operating on the basis of “tell us what you like and we’ll make you something you love”. They were however more than happy to make us some classics as well. We drank our concoctions by a heart shaped fireplace, watched over by a giant moose head (that was wearing a giant red nose in honour of the festive season when we visited) before heading to the theatre and it was a fabulous way to start the evening.

We tried to book in for brunch the following day but sadly they didn’t start serving until after our flight check in time. So I suppose there’s another reason to go back. I hear they do an excellent breakfast martini…

What we did

I already mentioned in a previous post that we caught a train from Dublin to Belfast to visit the Titanic: Belfast exhibition, and of course as it was my first time in the city, I just had to pay a visit to the Guinness Storehouse, even if just for the free samples, the advertising display and the views of the city.

However, I think my favourite tourist activity was the walking tour. We try to book one whenever we’re in a city for the first time, and we normally use Sandeman but this time we signed up with a local company that my aunt had used on previous trips. Historical Walking Tours are led by local history graduates and they demonstrate a real passion and knowledge for their subject. I’m ashamed to say I know little to nothing of Irish history so the three hours we spent walking the city were fascinating and went some way to alleviating my ignorance. The tours start at the Trinity College front gates and take in all the major sights including the old Parliament House, Temple Bar, City Hall, Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral.

Next time I visit I hope to see Kilmainham Gaol and there may have been mention of a Leprechaun Museum... hmmmm.

So Findettes – are any of you planning a weekend break in May? If so, let us know where and it may be our fellow readers have some recommendations.

Victoria
x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town: The Hayward Light Show

This is the final post before the Easter break so I just wanted to pop on and say Happy Easter everybody! I’m heading home with Pete to spend time with family, planning an overnight getaway and culture filled day in Liverpool, some baking projects and downtime, to recharge before April arrives. I hope you all have a relaxing and fun-filled few days with people you love. xo

I can’t do art galleries. While others can look, feel and appreciate the skill and visuals, if it’s not “pretty” to look at, functional or historical then I just don’t get it. My brain isn’t wired that way. I’m always looking for an answer in amongst those little coloured dots, a hidden message in those scribbles. The solution to a centuries-old puzzle in a room full of butterflies or conveyed to us via the medium of oil paint… yeah, yeah, I know, I read too much Dan Brown when I should have been writing my dissertation and I regularly forget that I don’t live in a world of Horcruxes and Beedle the Bard.

Basically, unless there’s a curator there to talk me through it, art just stresses my puny brain out.

But, enough about my uncultured soul. Shall I tell you what I do like?

LIGHTS!

Nothing pleases my eye, my brain and my soul more than light! Soft light in my lounge for sofa snuggling, bright light over my front door to feel safe on arrival at home, daylight for wide-awakeness in the morning (and for doing make up) in my bedroom. Christmas lights, neon lights, festival lights, runway lights as you come in to land over your home city. You can keep your Caribbean beach scenery, rolling hills around the Med, the African bush, the Aussie outback and Santorinian calderas… nothing makes me catch my breath like a cityscape seen from on high, blinking to life as the sun sets and a galaxy of twinkles emerges to mirror the stars above (that we so rarely see these days)… sigh.

Nature’s great, but for me, a surge of electricity pulsing a current through wire filament in a gas-filled glass tube is better!

Sorry. I’m a philistine.

To that end, when I saw the exhibition Light Show advertised at the Hayward Gallery I thought it would make a good Mother’s Day present/activity from me and my Baby Bro. I then also realised that my father, who has worked with lighting for years, might also be interested in attending (d’oh!), so I booked tickets for the four of us and set about planning our family day out.

The exhibition starts off with, what is in my opinion, the most amazing piece of the show, Cylinder II by Leo Villareal. It was transfixing. I could have stood there for hours to watch it rise and fall, glitter and sparkle, pulse and oscillate, as patterns of light were born and died in front of my eyes. Each a unique pattern, never to be seen again. I didn’t want to look away in case I missed something even more amazing. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed, but then again, no iPhone snap would do it justice. If I one day won the lottery I would have one of these installed in my dining room.

From there the installations varied from tiny motorised sculptures to large interactive exhibits and whole rooms where you can even become part of the Light Show yourself, my favourite being You and I , Horizontal (ooo eer!) by Anthony McCall. Along the way I found not just examples of aesthetically pleasing light-art, but also instances of mesmerizingly-good scientific/mathematical calculations masquerading as art, as demonstrated in Jim Campbell‘s Exploded View (Commuters). Some items were funny, particularly Throw by Ceal Floyer which actually made me chuckle to myself, some made me feel (inexplicably) a bit sad, like Lamentable by Francois Morellet, while others were just a bit dull (naming no names!). It all adds to the variety.

I really enjoyed the Chromosaturation rooms by Carlos Cruz Diez which highlighted to our little group the amazing effect light and colour has on us as human beings, not just on our bodies, but on our moods and our interactions with those around us.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Ivan Navarro for his Reality Show which caused me great embarrassment as I attempted to recreate Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body video, forgetting I was “hidden” behind one-way glass! You can take the girl out of Essex…

If you’re in the area, I’d highly recommend it popping in for an hour or two. You can buy tickets here and can download an exhibition guide in advance for swotting up on your installation art here.

I’d also like to point out that we visited at around midday on a Saturday, and it surprised me there were a lot of children in attendance. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be something that would appeal to those of a young age, being as it’s a gallery and there’s no touching/running/talking/fun allowed etc, but watching the kids interact with the exhibits and squeal with delight as they saw the effect they could have on the light made me realise that it’s actually a good place to take children – so if you’re holding back because of little ones, don’t! Equally, if you don’t like your outings kid-free, go at non-child-friendly times so as not to ruin your enjoyment of the lights!

So, after all this arty-farty ness, I’m feeling pumped for more gallery visits. Does anyone have any recommendations?

Victoria
x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl about Town: Spice Girl Saturday

Are you female? Were you in your teens at some point in the nineties? Do you love cheesy tunes and plain old silly fun?

If so, then read read on.

When I look back on my school life and my teenage years, I see a montage of scenes flash past my eyes in vivid colour, at full volume, on fast forward and with the Spice Girls featuring heavily in the soundtrack (along with some Alanis Morisette, Robbie Williams, Madonna and some Pure Garage mix tapes – hey – don’t judge me!)

I loved the Spice Girls. Correction, I LOVE the Spice Girls. I’ve loved them since they first mimed Wannabe on breakfast TV. They inspired us to dress like divs (seriously – those Buffalos were just insane!), dance like mad girls, perform their hits in the school talent shows (prompting rows with rival groups in the playground) and shout “GIRL POWER” as a response to anything and everything.

They had attitude but weren’t bitches. They inspired outfits/hairstyles but weren’t really fashionable (sorry, Posh, you just weren’t!). They were naughty but they weren’t bad girls. They wore skimpy outfits but they weren’t slutty. They weren’t the best singers, the best dancers, the best actresses or the best looking, but in my humble, musically uneducated opinion (Penny will perhaps argue otherwise!) they were the original and BEST girl group. They worked hard, put the time and effort in, took control and responsibility, they gave it their all and seemed to have so much fun whilst they were doing it, and most importantly, they did it for the girls, not for the boys. Yes, I’m looking at you Pussy Cat Dolls! For me they were inspirational role models, and, really, when I look at them as Spice Women, they still are. Anyway, I digress.

As a big fan, I hustled hard to get tickets when they reformed for a live tour a few years ago and followed every rumour about them performing in the Olympics closing ceremony with glee. When I heard about the proposed musical being written I was over the moon and when tickets for Viva Forever! went on sale, I rounded up my musical theatre/dance school/cheese-loving friends (my “cool” friends still judge me for my love of the Spices!) and demanded that we all buy tickets… and dress up. They stalled and stalled and wouldn’t commit to a date and I started to lose hope. I thought my friends had lost their love of cheese. That would have been a sad day.

As it happens, they were stalling because they had purchased tickets for me as a Christmas present! Yippeeeeeeeeeeee

So, a few weekends ago, the five of us were discussing plans (read: “politely arguing about which Spice we were dressing up as”) when I discovered that Harvey Nichols were doing a Viva Forever! themed afternoon tea and cocktail menu in their Fifth Floor Bar and Season restaurant. Well that put the “which Spice am I?” discussions to bed, as we felt it improper turn up at Harvey Nics in full out 90s fancy dress. I mean, no one wants to see someone’s pants peeking from under a too-short Union Flag dress or five girls face-planting on the floor due to ridiculously heavy platform trainers whilst trying to enjoy their afternoon tea, do they?

The afternoon tea started off with mini savoury bites: a cured beef and chutney bagel, an egg and cress roll, smoked salmon on pumpernickel and chicken and chutney roulade in fresh white bread, which we all wolfed down in our excitement to get to the sweet treats: the Sporty Spice cake pop, the Baby Spice mousse (served in a bottle), the Ginger Spice Union Flag lemon and ginger mille feuille, the Scary Spice chilli and chocolate roll (complete with white chocolate leopard print, ahem, decoration) and the Posh Spice Harvey Nics-branded marzipan and Victoria sponge (of course) handbag. There were also the usual scones with jam and clotted cream on the menu too.

In terms of cocktails, we began with some from the standard menu (with which we were already familiar, following our cocktail masterclass back in the summer) and then we worked our way through the themed cocktails, which were delicious. It was difficult to select, but in the end I was happy with my choice of the Scary (Fresh chilli, lychee liqueur topped with Champagne), although I did manage to take a sip of all of them. We then spent the rest of the afternoon talking about our favourite Spice (mine’s Victoria – obviously), our favourite songs (mine being Who Do You Think You Are) dance routines (Spice Up Your Life) and generally making a spectacle of ourselves singing, laughing and pinning the themed bows from our cocktail glasses in our hair and to the head of our rather attentive waiter.

We were cutting it too fine to use public transport, and so, in true Spice Girls style we hailed a cab, ran down the middle of the road, piled in and squeaked, squawked and sang all the way to The Piccadilly Theatre. On arrival we were offered the opportunity to be “upgraded” to the Ambassador Lounge, a small private room with a dedicated waiter to bring us drinks and nibbles before the show and during the interval “for only a small fee”. Of course we accepted and it was all pretty exciting as it was the room the Spices themselves had used when visiting the theatre to watch the show (you can arrange this facility in advance by calling the theatre). We ordered some bubbly to sip before the show, which we then decanted in to plastic flutes to take in to the stalls with us and chatted with the waiter about any Spice Girl gossip he could give us (none!) before heading in to the show.

I won’t ruin the story line, but the same vein as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, the story is just a vehicle for the songs to be introduced and you can see them coming a mile off. But, as a Spice Girls fan, guessing what’s coming is one of the best bits. There are a few surprises in there too – listen out for them!

I’m not a theatre critic so I won’t analyse the staging, casting (although there were two stand outs) or scripting but it has Jennifer Saunders written all over it, which is a good thing in my book. There’s more than a hint of Eddie, Patsy and Bubble in amongst the main characters and I swear I heard one of Patsy’s Ab Fab lines crop up. If you loved Ab Fab, Ugly Betty, Glee and The Catherine Tate Show you’ll love the characters. If you follow(ed) shows like X Factor and Pop Idol you’ll recognise parodies of some very prominent characters from Saturday night TV and you’ve read Ben Elton’s Chart Throb then you’ll get the underlying message. Basically, if you read this paragraph and know what the hell I’m wittering on about, then we’re on the same wavelength and you’ll really enjoy it!

I chose not to read the reviews, but I heard that the critics panned it. Come on. It’s not Les Mis, but if you don’t expect it to be, and you can just appreciate it for what it is, then you’ll have fun. When else can you go to the theatre and, during a touching romance scene, put your arms in the air, cling tight to your best girls and sing along to 2 Become 1 at the top of your voice or stand up in the aisles and howl with laughter through the original dance routine along with the cast and the rest of the audience to Stop or Spice Up Your Life?

My suggestion? If you don’t take yourself or your theatre choices too seriously, and, of course, if you are a Spice Girls fan then get your glittery platforms on, round up your best girls for a some pre drinks and go see it!

SPICE UP YOUR LIFE!

Victoria
x
  • Read more about the Viva Forever Champagne Cocktails here and the Viva Forever Afternoon Tea here.
  • Book tickets and find out more about Viva Forever, the show, here.

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

#JanuaryJoy – Do something/Go somewhere you have never been before

Today’s prompt seemed like the perfect time to hear from Victoria with her monthly Girl About Town post, particularly as she is always doing things I have never done before. Today’s prompt is intended to get us all out of a January (or maybe long-standing  rut. I think that doing new things, trying new stuff and going to new places is what makes life fun and exciting and keeps life fresh. It’s also great for your relationship. Discovering new things together is key to a relationship and if you choose to do this prompt with a friend then having something new to go home and share with your other half is just as good.

I’ve been thinking about some of the things I want to try and so far I have come up with two – I’d love you to share yours in the comments box after reading Victoria’s post!

  • Take a snowboarding class (I ski but have never tried to board!)
  • Go to the opera – something I have just never gotten around to…

Do something/go somewhere you have never been: History lessons with a twist

I know that all my talk of cocktails, shoes and afternoon tea may leave you surprised when I say that I’m a big fat history geek. As in, I see David Starkey crop up in that information box at the bottom of the screen when flipping through the channels and I’m rendered unable to move from the sofa. Despite giving it up in year nine at school (I thought it was a tedious and boring subject  – turns out, that was just the teacher) I’ve been surrounded by a family full of history buffs all my life and so I seem to have picked up the obsession by osmosis (you’ll tell by the misuse of this science reference that I’m clearly not a science geek, nor Brian Cox fangirl). The past, I now realise, has always been fascinating to me. It’s why I prefer stately homes to art galleries. It’s why, although chick lit is a big fat no on my reading list, chick lit disguised as historical fiction is a-ok (I’m talking to you Philippa Gregory), it’s why although I hate soap operas, my Sky+ is full of costume dramas (basically just soap operas in longer skirts) and why every fancy dress party I throw has some kind of dress code/theme from eras past.

So in that vein, I’m telling you about some little day trips I made to see some stories from our recent past, and one from prehistoric times!

Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, Westminster, London

My bro is the biggest history buff of my whole family clan, so for his birthday we all paid a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I knew of their existence through the Imperial War Museum, and because my uncle used to work for the Home Office and mentions them a lot, but had never paid a visit as I still to this day have nightmares about the Blitz experience and the trench walk we did when I was a child. I’m also a bit claustrophobic about airless, underground rooms, but seeing as people lived and worked in those rooms for years, to preserve the freedom of our country, I thought I could suck it up and get on with it.

Anyway, back to the actual Rooms. You enter through a sleek sliding glass door at street level, and head straight down under ground to buy tickets and collect the rather good audio guides, before commencing the self-guided tour. It starts with the Cabinet room, set up exactly as it would have been when Churchill held his meetings here with the original furniture (no reproductions!), maps and even the original “graffiti”. It’s literally like you’ve stepped back in time with the sights, sounds and even smells of a defining era of our history assaulting every sense in your body. The whole set up gave me shivers when I realised that in these dingy, dark, uncomfortable, slightly shabby rooms, the fate of the world was decided by a few dedicated men and women (and a few animals too).

The commentary on the audio guide, much like the audio guide at Alcatraz (renowned for its excellence), is punctuated with real life reports from people that lived and worked in the warren of underground rooms, and the sound effects of bustling corridors, whistling guards and whirring machines add an eerie sense of reality to the tour.

Halfway round the tour you segue in to the Churchill Museum, with modern and interactive exhibits to really make it stand apart from the early- to mid-century set up in the Cabinet War Rooms themselves. It makes you feel like you’re actually getting two tours/exhibits for the price of one. The museum is laid out along a time line of Churchill’s life and is full of artefacts, reports, videos and blood-stirring excerpts from his speeches. It’s an amazing insight in to the well-known but also the hidden parts of the life of one of the most famous men in British, if not World, history.

If like me you’re also fascinated not just by the history and the life stories, but also the idea of international espionage, then the little details like the secret telephone room and colour coded telephone receivers will really capture your imagination. My favourite part of the tour was the map room, which was set up exactly how it was found, including the map pins left in the place on the day the war ended, the staff left and the lights were switched off and there they remain to this day. It was also rather endearing to see little touches like carpets and little flourishes of extravagance that were clearly added in an attempt to make this subterranean world more homely for the people that called it both The Office and Home.

As an aside, in the gift shop (there’s always a gift shop!), look past the “Keep Calm” posters and take note of the wartime propaganda notices about keeping your house and life in order. I bought postcards for all my team to pop up on their desks, and interestingly they contain messages that are as appropriate today as they were then, just for different reasons. Amongst others, ones that were particularly relevant to me were: “Less shopping means less shipping!”, “Go through your wardrobe: Make do and mend!” and “Eat less bread”

Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland

I did know that Titanic was built in Belfast, but it also kind of slipped my mind. It’s one of the facts about Titanic that disappeared behind a wall of fiction in my memory, created by James Cameron. Everything I now “know” about the ship centres around a certain floppy haired actor and a porcelain skinned actress! So, seeing as all the facts I knew had cleverly wiped themselves from my brain, and 2012 was the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy, it felt right that on a trip to Dublin at the end of last year I booked some train tickets to head up to Belfast to see the recently opened exhibition.

Of course it’s not like normal exhibitions, full of artefacts and actual tangible items for you to oooh and aaah over, or as is the case with exhibitions of tragic moments in history, observe in respectful silence and with tears in your eyes. It’s the artefacts that usually pull me in and help me identify with the story the exhibition is trying to tell, so I was a bit worried that it’d leave me a bit cold with no actual stuff (that’s not meant to sound crass, apologies if it did), and that I’d find it hard to empathise with the story. 

I needn’t have worried. Titanic’s much-publicised beginnings are told with pictures, videos, on-board simulations, stories read by actors and real life accounts from survivors told in their own words and voices. The set up is clever, taking you through the history of the community that built her, an actual journey into the “shipyard”, through a very clever launch simulation looking over the actual dock where she first hit water, and then “inside” as they fitted her out. Really, we are seeing the raucous, noisy and glorious birth of probably the most famous ship in history.

Then the mood changes, and the moment she is hit is detailed with displays, narrations and visual effects that left me shivering inside. I sat in the room that told this part of the story in a reflective silence for a long time, listening to the actual voices of survivors, reading the distress message transcripts, and staring at the Morse code symbols over and over.

The inquests that followed the tragedy, and the changes in maritime law that were implemented as a consequence, were then examined. After that you reach a beautiful display of the countless books, films and pieces of music written in tribute to the ship, her crew, her survivors and the poor lost souls, and the years of media coverage and interest her wreckage has generated. I spent quite a lot of time here just looking and listening and feeling.

But then there’s the best bit, a theatre playing footage and voice-over commentary from the submarine that found Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. It’s enchanting, mesmerising, chilling and upsetting all at the same time. Anyone who has seen the James Cameron film will also recognise snippets of the recording. At the end of the film you can then explore the ocean floor for objects using touch screens to access different visual locations from the various mini-submarines and even stand on a (fake) glass floor to look through to the “sea bed” beneath your feet. Even though you know it’s all a simulation, it’s startlingly real and even made me feel a bit queasy!

At the very end I was also excited to find the actual costumes worn by Kate and Leo in the James Cameron film along with a few others, and some props, which explains why they weren’t at the V&A Hollywood Costume Exhibition, where I had expected to see them!

It really was very cleverly done and, considering there’s nothing but photos, film and interviews that they can show, it really captured my heart and drew me right in. My highlights would include the virtual deck tour, re-creations of the cabins, the deep water exploration theatre and the interactive “artefact locator” with the “glass” floor. It’s most definitely worth a visit if you’re in the City.

We booked tickets online and took a cab from Belfast Central station which takes no more than ten minutes.

Walking with Dinosaurs (seen at the O2 but now on tour, back in the UK in the spring)

I mentioned before that my bro is the biggest history geek that I know, but when it comes to dinosaurs, I know of a contender for his crown – my friend’s six year old son! So I took all my dino nerd friends and family, old and young, back to a prehistoric age to see the Walking with Dinosaurs live show at the O2.

It was awesome.

I was surprised to be so excited by the prospect of seeing dinosaur puppets (not a spoiler!) going about their pre-historic business, set to music and narrated by a fake paleontologist, but I really, really was.

The show takes you through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods and features the “celebrities” of each era… culminating in the Big One. My bro being a complete dino nerd as a child must have rubbed off on me because I found myself actually getting excited as the dinosaurs entered the arena with yelps of “ooooh, Brachiosaurus“, “I bet this is Stegosaurus“, “woooooo, T-Rex!

Thankfully my squeals were drowned out by those of the kids in the box with us!

The journey is illustrated beautifully with the use of the ever changing landscape (so cleverly done) and is accompanied by a moving music score (I didn’t, but I did almost cry at one point). The narrator, playing the part of a palaeontologist called Huxley (who was pretty handsome, as far as I can tell from the close ups!), provided enthusiastic commentary about the flora and fauna of the different ages, evolution, the changing land mass and the dinosaurs themselves in terms that were understandable to young kids, but not boring for the big kids.

The puppets were brilliant and the smaller ones were mesmerising in the same way as those in Warhorse – You know they aren’t real, clearly being able to see the human operatives, but you can’t help but be sucked in by their life-like mannerisms and movements (as life-like as we know long-extinct gigantic reptiles to be). Really very clever.

It’s not highly scientific, more like a prehistoric soap opera at times, and I have no idea on the accuracy, though my dino-expert-New-Scientist-subscriber companions didn’t correct it too much, so I’m assuming it was relatively correct. I found it all rather interesting and engaging but I didn’t learn anything new, but maybe I’m a dino nerd too? Well, I have watched The Land Before Time at least 100 times and the Jurassic Park films about 50, so I must have learned something (Long-Necks don’t play with Three-Horns)?

The ending is all rather cute and funny too with a particular character stealing the show.

It’s going on tour, so check here for dates and tickets.

So what are you doing this month that you have never done before?
Victoria
x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl about Town: Harry Potter Studio tour

**WARNING**

Fans of Harry Potter: this post may make you hyperventilate. Stay calm. Remember to breathe.

Not a fan of Harry Potter? See you tomorrow, when normal, grown up service resumes. Apologies in advance.

Harry Potter Fans Anonymous – I’m Victoria and I’m a Harry Potter fan. It’s been a big part of my life for ten years now, so it was only a matter of time until I dragged the whole family off to Leavesden to visit the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour to satisfy my on-going addiction.

We arrived about an hour earlier than our time slot at what felt like a retail park, were directed to a parking bay and, in our hurry to get inside, declined the offer of a local pub recommendation from the very welcoming car park attendants for some lunch, opting instead for the on-site café. We braced ourselves for some hideous food but actually it wasn’t too bad… except for the (expectedly) hideous prices. Anyway, enough about the car park and the café, on to the tour.

We queued, as directed, 20 minutes before our designated tour time, were welcomed in a cinema-style introduction by Daniel, Emma and Rupert (yup, first name terms!) and then walked through the grand Hogwarts doors (squeeeal) and found ourselves in the Great Hall (bigger squeeeeal)… and the magic started.

We had a mini presentation from one of the guides with some information about the two parts and then, upon leaving the Great Hall, the rest of the tour is self-guided. For those with questions or in want of more detail (and yes, I realise the “detail” is very much a figment of their own, amazingly dedicated, imaginations) there are staff placed strategically around the studios to provide background and even mini “tutorials” on the artefacts, sets and costumes.

The tour promises that secrets will be revealed and they certainly are. Normally, I’d hate to see how the magic is created, as it could ruin the enchantment of the films, but in this instance it added to it.

Seeing the actual Great Hall was pretty breathtaking, seeing the (surprisingly small) costumes worn by the actors was fascinating, standing face-to-face with actors dressed as Death Eaters was great fun (except for my mum who jumped out of her skin), and being (almost) in the sets and being able to touch some of the props gave me goosebumps.

I’ll admit it – I transformed in to an ultra-mega-super-Harry-Potter-geek-a-saurus. Think the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory all mashed up in to one giant Star Trek enthusiast, attending a Star Trek convention and having lunch with William Shatner. Yip. That was me.

My exceptionally nerdy brother actually commented, as I did a little squeal on discovering a particular item, that it was nice to “not be the nerd for once”, stating that, in this environment, he felt almost “cool”. Whatever.

This is a Mecca for Harry Potter geeks looking to prolong the love.

Highlights for me, after much deliberation over dinner and in the car on the way home, were as follows:

  • Standing in the Great Hall. The ACTUAL Great Hall. OMG! I almost cried.
  • Walking along Diagon Alley and poring over the intricate window displays. So real. So atmospheric. I know the names of the shops along this fictional street almost as well as the stores along Oxford Street.
  • A rather detailed lecture about a number of key characters’ wands, including the individual aesthetics and qualities of each. Very interesting with some very well-thought out arguments even if it was all completely made up and not necessarily endorsed by JKR!
  • Sampling Butterbeer, which wasn’t as gross as I imagined it to be
  • Looking for the cast names in the Wand Room
  • And finally, spending the best part of an hour walking around and around and around the scale model of Hogwarts. It made my heart pound.

My least favourite bit? The gift shop. it made my senses ache and my wallet cry. I wanted to buy everything. Sadly I’m not a billionaire, or an eight year old, so I had to restrain myself. In the end I bought some tongue-in-cheek books JKR wrote for Comic Relief, Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to add to my HP book shelf, alongside The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the original seven books.

After the tour we made our way over to The Grove Hotel, about a five minute drive away, for some cocktails, in-depth Harry Potter related discussions and dinner. This hotel in itself provides a great day out with amazing gardens (square trees, hidden fountains and giant glowing plant pots) and a number of restaurants and bars. Apparently the cast stayed here during filming. *Commence fan-girl squealing now*

I’m now planning to watch the box set back-to-back and annoy everyone with lots of pausing and shrieks of “I’ve seen that” whilst pointing at the screen.

Overall, a GREAT day out for HP fans old and young. Who wants to come with me when I go back? I’ll sort out our costumes, let me know your sizes…

Love,
Victoria.

The Details: the studios can be reached by train or road and details can be found at the WB website. Tickets get booked up well in advance so plan ahead. Also be aware that you have to book for a specific time slot and have to arrive well in advance in case of queues. All information can be found on the website here.

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town gets out of town: Seville

After a crazy summer of house buying and flat selling, homelessness, living in my in my parents’ study, moving house, about 25 weddings (actually only seven), decorating and renovating our new home, London2012 hysteria and seeing my husband once every three weeks (due to London2012 shifts) we decided to treat ourselves to a relaxing, end-of-summer week somewhere nice and hot, not too pricey but luxurious enough to feel a bit self-indulgent. I didn’t want a city break – too much sightseeing required and sitting by a pool all day in the middle of a city, ready to be explored, just seemed wrong.

So, a cheap, nice, early-October beach break? Pretty simple, you’d think?

Wrong.

Everywhere close (a.k.a. cheap) enough couldn’t guarantee the sunshine that we were craving. Everywhere that could guarantee the sunshine, required a 14 hour flight and three times our budget just to get there. The only option that ticked all boxes, or so we thought, was Cyprus. Short flight, we could use budget airlines, good weather predicted, lovely hotels! Inexplicably, this option was more expensive than the Caribbean, Dubai and South East Asia all put together. And the flight times were bonkers.

Hmmm.

As the deadline drew nearer our list of options got shorter. And then we got burgled.

Aside from the feelings of anger, shock, violation, fear and sadness, I was LIVID that after all this time of waiting for our romantic beach break, we were now forking out hundreds of pounds for new doors, our excess insurance fee and a new alarm system, and so we were now unlikely to be going anywhere.

But, after all that extra stress on top of the list above, we refused to let it break us. We hadn’t spent more than a few hours in each other’s company for months and we needed to Chill. Out. So we started looking at cheap city breaks and discovered Seville: Scorching sunshine; a beautiful setting; great reviews from recent visitors; cheap flights from an airport less than 30 minutes away and at realistic times; and a Mr and Mrs Smith Hotel with short-notice availability at a reasonable price – PERFECT!

I did a bit of research in to the location and was pleased to find that although there was a lot of wandering to be done there were only a few major sights. I feel guilty chilling out reading my book by a pool when there is culture I’m missing out on. So there was enough to entertain us, but no so much that our chill time was compromised.

We arrived at the Hospes las Casas del Rey de Baeza about midday after a short 20 minute cab ride from the airport and, as our room wasn’t yet ready, we were given a welcome drink (ice cold sangria for him, juice for me) and a small tour of the hotel before settling in one of the central patios to read up on the location.

The hotel was rustic in style with rooms on three levels on open balconies/corridors around two central patios. On the ground floor, we found a cool, calm library and lounge complete with big scoochy (it counts as a word if you know what I mean – and I know you do!) leather sofas, and a garden room with wicker chairs over-looking a small garden area with a mesmerising water feature and lush green plants. I found myself sitting here day dreaming for about two hours on the last day.

Eventually we unpacked in our rather spacious room (not a great view, so let’s not dwell) and we decided to leave exploring until after sundown and to make the most of that big firey ball of warmth in the sky that we seemed to be missing in the UK over the summer months, and headed up to the roof terrace to read, snooze and unwind. The roof terrace was rather chic, and I felt like I was back in Santorini – everything was sleek, modern and white. Decking, sofas, funky lamps, potted cacti, sun loungers and a small, but perfect, pool all in amongst the Andalusian rooftops.

An un-manned bar in the corner was home to a stack of menus and a phone with a direct dial to the kitchen. We ordered some delicious-sounding salads and drinks and settled in for a warm, relaxing afternoon with a handful of fresh Seville oranges, plucked from the innumerable baskets, vases and bowls full to the brim of the sunshine fruit, found all over the hotel and grounds.

Later that evening we went out to explore, taking advice from the guys on reception for the best places for tapas, drinks and general hanging out. In the end, we got so lost wandering the cute, cobbly, windy, atmospheric streets that that I can’t even begin to tell you where we ate each night. My only advice would be TAKE A MAP and wear flat shoes! I’m normally map-averse for various reasons 1) I don’t like to draw attention to myself as a tourist. I know I don’t look like a local with my milky white skin, but I don’t want to look completely clueless and vulnerable, 2) part of the fun of a city, for me, is finding my way by chance, using landmarks to navigate, soaking up the atmosphere and people watching on my way and 3) if you’re looking at a map, you’re not looking at your surroundings, which is what exploring is all about.

Seville is not for the map-averse. After two laps of the same circuit, crossing the same square in the same direction twice, I caved and consulted the map. And that’s when I looked around and realised that every second person, regardless of nationality, was standing there with their own map looking perplexed, squinting at the tiny print and then the crumbling street signs and trying to find their way. It actually added an element of camaraderie to the trip.

Eventually we found somewhere to eat – the food was average and the service was worse, but the sangria was good, and the setting was beautiful, so who cares about soggy patatas bravas and oily chorizo!

The second day we skipped the hotel breakfast (which, although delicious and lovely, worked out about €50 each) grabbed some pastries and smoothies from a bakery not far from the hotel, ate our fill on a bench with some locals in a small square and then did some conventional sight-seeing, buying tickets for the Real Alcazar and staring in awe at the Moorish architecture of this ancient palace, sauntering down to the river and checking out the Bull Ring (but making sure to give them no money, instead a few pointed looks!) and a spot of much, MUCH better, tapas for lunch in the shadow of the huge Cathedral.

The third day we gave over to a mammoth lie in and more roof top pool lounging and delicious food snacking, and in the evening took a slightly different route in to the commercial shopping area to find the Metropol Parasol, peruse Zara and Mango (Sorry Mr G) and find a cocktail bar. We failed on the latter.


No matter where we looked, nowhere had any kind of drinks list: the options were sangria, vino tinto, vino blanco or refrescos. Even outlets that billed themselves as “Cocktail Bars” looked at me like I was crazy when I asked to see the cocktail list. I almost gave up hope until our last evening when we stumbled across a beautiful rooftop terrace bar overlooking the lit-up cathedral that, despite not having a menu either, offered me a few cocktail options from which to choose. At last! It was a shame that we found this bar on the last evening! For reference this restaurant also looked pretty great and had we been there an extra day we would definitely have gone back to eat there.

Overall I’d say that Seville is a stunning place to visit, great for relaxing, wandering, snacking and, most of all, relaxing. I expect I’ll head back in the not too distant future to use it as a base from which to visit Granada and the Alhambra as, from what I’ve heard Seville is a much lovelier place than Granada, if you’re willing to take the train or coach trip (a few hours, and not too pricey) between the two cities.

In short, my Seville suggestions…

1) Don’t bother packing heels. You won’t even take them out of your case.
2) Don’t expect haute cuisine, but equally, no meal cost us more than €30 (at most) for about eight tapas dishes, local wine and/or sangria and bread and olives. Local, tasty and affordable. What’s not to like?
3) Don’t expect great service – as a former waitress I ALWAYS tip generously, but in one place we left without leaving a tip at all to make a point about the so-bad-I-was-looking-for-hidden-cameras service!
4) Don’t make any hard and fast plans – you’ll get lost, find yourself stuck down dead ends, will wait ages for a drink/meal and so will likely miss any deadlines you set yourself. It’s best to embrace the Spanish way and take it easy.
5) Do make sure to explore and soak up the city’s vibe at all times of the day. Europe does it so much better than us – less focus on work and more focus on life in the work-life balance. Even the daily “commute” is a sociable experience with bars, cafes, street vendors and holes in the wall coming alive at a time when most Brits are in “heads-down-ignore-everyone” mode. Maybe it’s the sunshine that makes everyone happier?

6) Do follow the locals to their buzzy drinking spots – impromptu street drinking, music and dancing made for a great carnival atmosphere every night of the week!
7) Do partake in a spot of shopping in amongst the sight-seeing. Sorry boys!
8) Do salivate over the Flamenco-style wedding dresses on display in every second window. I’ve literally never seen so many wedding dress shops in one city. It’s a man’s nightmare. If he’s already engaged he’ll be asked endless questions about “do you like this, do you like that?”. If he’s not, he had better hurry up and put a ring on it! If he’s married, he’ll have to deflect questions about vow-renewal! (maybe this point is just me!)

So, Findettes, have any of you been to Seville? Are you planning to visit? Any top tips to add to my list?

I also have a favour to ask – I’m going to Dublin and Belfast in a few weeks to visit my cousin with my mum and my aunt. She’s a poor starving student (yeah right!) and has the pubs and bars side of things covered, so I’m looking to you ladies for some suggestions on upmarket, chic cocktail bars and restaurants one normally reserves for special occasions as I think, for her, this one is on her mum (shhhhh!)….

Until next month

Victoria

x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

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