Chez Leon restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

Mussels in Brussels at Restaurant Chez Léon

Britain has its fish and chips, Germany has Currywurst mit Pommes while in Belgium the ‘must-try’ national dish is surely mussels with fries. To do that I headed to Chez Léon in the heart of Brussels.

The long-established restaurant is a five-minute walk from the Belgian capital’s iconic Grand Place (Grote Markt), the cobbled market place whose ornamental, Renaissance facades were restored after being bombarded by French artillery in 1695.

Key attractions in central Brussels

I headed to lunch after strolling through the airy Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen), a 19th century shopping arcade whose shops have beautifully arranged show windows. Resisting the temptation posed by handmade chocolates in the Neuhaus store, I turned out of the arcade and onto the rue des Bouchers, which is also known as Beenhouwerstraat. Streets in Brussels carry both French and Flemish names.

Prior to travelling, I’d read much about the complex tensions between French and Flemish speakers in Belgium. For all their differences the two groups appear to share an appreciation of good food. Brussels has a thriving café culture and restaurant scene. French and Flemish influences make the country’s cuisine worth exploring.

Evening on the Grand Place ( 'Grote Markt' and 'La Grand-Place') in Brussels, Belgium.

Evening on the Grand Place ( ‘Grote Markt’ and ‘La Grand-Place’) in Brussels, Belgium.

Ordering Belgium’s national dish

As you’d expect in a capital city, there are numerous touristy spots to try the national dish. Ask for moules-frites or mosselen-friet if you want to try ordering mussels with fries using the local lingo. It struck me that within Brussels the French name seems more popular for this dish.

Chez Léon draws plenty of passing trade, after all its centrally located. A red and green striped canopy and outdoor tables help give the restaurant an appealing look. It’s the kind of place that locals as well as tourists visit for lunch. It’s mid-priced and known for quality seafood, including grilled sole meunière.

The history of Chez Léon

The restaurant was recommended when I said I wanted to try good mussels with fries. They’ve certainly had plenty of practice making them in the kitchen of Chez Léon, which first opened its doors in 1893. Its proprietor, Léon Vanlancker, already had experience of running the A la ville d’Anvers restaurant, a couple of doors along at 14 rue des Bouchers, and moved to establish Friture Léon. It’s been known as Restaurant Chez Léon since 1953.

Dressed in black trousers, a white shirt and a long green apron, my waiter, André, greeted me and bid me to follow him across the dining room’s stone floor to a table with a green-checked table cloth. Under wooden ceiling beams I noticed a sign reading ‘Chez Léon 1893 Friture Bruxellaise’ and pink neon advertising Grimbergen beer. Others, on the wood-clad walls, mentioned Moules à la Crème and Moules à L’escargot.

A pot of mussels.

A pot of mussels.

Traditional Belgian cuisine

For the benefit of tourists the menu at Chez Léon highlights traditional Belgian dishes with the a little black, yellow and red tricolour. It lists 14 different styles of mussels. The most popular, according to André, was Special Mussels, whose recipe remains secret. He divulged it features Belgian beer.

The country is, of course, famed for its beers. The restaurant has served its own brew, Léon, since 2001, so I ordered a glass. It’s a refreshing, rounded beer with plenty of flavour.

For my starter I spurned the calf’s brains tartare and frogs’ legs with garlic in favour of shrimp croquettes. They breadcrumb-covered, hand-rolled croquettes came with dark green, deep-fried parsley, whose colour and crispy texture reminded me of seaweed.

Between courses I noticed a good number of the tables were occupied, giving the restaurant a lively feel. A mixed group opposite me appeared to be discussing work. To my right a group of American tourists laughed together while comparing the photos they’d taken in Brussels. All told, the restaurant has an informal look and feel.

The kitchen is semi-open, featuring white glazed tiles. A black and white portrait of a chef in a gilt frame hangs to the left of the busy workplace. I kept glancing over, anticipating the arrival of my main course.

When the pot of mussels arrived they proved tender and the sauce tasty. The fries were chunky with a crisp surface texture.

As I left the restaurant I couldn’t help but think of Men at Work’s song Down Under. Six foot four and full of mussels, I headed out satisfied and ready to explore more of Brussels.

Finding Chez Leon in Brussels

The original Chez Léon restaurant is located at 18 rue des Bouchers 18 (Beenhouwerstraat 18) in central Brussels. Call +32 (0)2 5111415 to reserve a table.

Getting to Brussels

London and Brussels are connected by direct Eurostar rail services. Direct journeys take just over two hours. For bookings and more information see the voyages-sncf.com website or call the Voyages-sncf Travel Centre (193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU) on +44 (0)844 848 5848.

Information on Brussels and Belgium

Find out more about the city via the Visit Brussels website. Also see the Belgian Tourist Office and Visit Flanders websites for travel ideas.

The window of the Chez Leon restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

The window of the Chez Leon restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

Penshaw Monument at night - a well-known Sunderland landmark.

Exploring England by rail: Sunderland

Penshaw Monument, arguably Sunderland’s best-known landmark, resembles a Greek temple. As you stand on Penshaw Hill you might quietly wish the weather was more like Greece’s.

Even on seemingly calm summer days wind often whips between the columns of the monument, which was built in the 1840s in honour of John Lambton, the Earl of Durham and a Governor-General of Canada. If you have a head for heights you can head to the top of the National Trust-run property on weekends and bank holidays from Easter until the end of September. It’s a good spot to gain an overview of the surrounding area.

I grew up in Sunderland and currently live in the city. Friends have even suggested that was a factor in me becoming a travel writer, joking it was the only way I was going to get into Europe, given the perennial lack of success of Sunderland’s football club.

Touring Sunderland’s Stadium of Light

What do they know? The club have, in fact, won England’s league title six times, albeit most recently back in 1936. If you enjoy football, find out more about the club’s history during a tour of the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light, whose first league game, during the 1997-98 season, saw Sunderland beat Manchester City 3-1.

From there it’s a short walk to Monkwearmouth Station Museum, a Victorian railway station with a Classical façade. As you’d expect, the museum provides insights into the history of transport but also hosts temporary exhibitions on aspects of regional heritage. In 2014, to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of World War One, propaganda posters were put on display.

The beach at Sunderland

In fine weather you could head to the coast and walk along the promenade between Roker and Seaburn. Kick off your shoes, if you don’t mind the chill of the North Sea, and scrunch golden sand under your feet while plodging along the shoreline.

To gain insights into Sunderland’s urban history head towards the East End, the site of Holy Trinity Church, which was consecrated on 5 September 1719. Inside the Baroque-style church you’ll see a statue of Robert Gray, the rector between 1819 and 1838, a man who played an active role in civic matters plus a painted font. A plaque in the foyer records the heroics of local man Jack Crawford at the naval battle between British and Dutch ships at Camperdown in 1797.

Within Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden you can learn about the history of the city and see artefacts relating to the region’s industrial heritage. The art collection includes paintings by L.S. Lowry, who spent time painting in the North-East. The domed winter garden, always a good place to warm up if it’s cold outside, houses around 2,000 plant and tree species.

When to visit Sunderland

Around a million people visited the city during the 2015 Sunderland International Airshow, held from 24 to 26 July. The RAF Red Arrows are a regular fixture at the annual event, which features aerobatics, parachute displays plus flypasts by historic and contemporary aircraft.

The Royal Air Force Red Arrows fly past Seaburn Lighthouse during Sunderland International Airshow.

The Royal Air Force Red Arrows fly past Seaburn Lighthouse during Sunderland International Airshow.

Quirky but true

The origins of Sunderland’s name are said to hark to medieval times and refer to the ‘sundered land’ across the River Wear from the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery on its north bank. Coincidentally, in Hindi the word ‘sundar’ means beautiful. On several occasions while in India I mentioned I came from Sunderland and people muttered “ah, a beautiful place”.

The erstwhile monastic land is now the site of the University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s Campus, named after St Peter’s Church, which has 7th century origins. The first stained glass windows in the country were made for the monastery, of which the church was once a part. This explains why you’ll find the United Kingdom’s National Glass Centre in Sunderland.

It’s beer o’clock

If you like real ales and a ‘proper pub’ atmosphere head to The Kings Arms in Beach Street, Deptford, across the River Wear from Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. The long-established, laid-back pub has a wood-panelled bar and a couple of fires to sup beer by on chilly evenings. If you like football memorabilia check out the photos and illustrations on the walls, where you’ll also see an example of the wooden seating once used in Roker Park. It’s a great spot for a pre- or post-match pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord or one of the regularly changing guest beers, many of which come from breweries in Durham and Northumberland. If it wasn’t for the lack of an apostrophe in its name I’d be tempted to name this place as the perfect pub.

The Dun Cow (9 High Street West) stands opposite the Sunderland Empire theatre, so is well-located for meeting ahead of shows. The Edwardian pub underwent major restoration works in 2014 and it’s worth popping in to take a look at the intricately carved woodwork behind the bar. While you’re there you might as well sample the hand-pulled ales. There’s a decent selection, as you’d expect from a pub that’s part of the Head of Steam chain.

The Edwardian facades of the Sunderland Empire theatre and Dun Cow pub.

The Edwardian facades of the Sunderland Empire theatre and Dun Cow pub.

Where to eat in Sunderland

I enjoy the food served in the National Glass Centre’s Brasserie (Liberty Way; tel. +44 (0)191 5155555), a bright, modern restaurant by the north bank of the River Wear. I’ve dined here a number of times and like the fact the food is well-presented while the atmosphere remains informal. If you’re with a group the grazing platters are good option to share. Regional cuisine, such as fisherman’s pie, plus Mediterranean-influenced dishes are among the items on the menu.

If you’re in the vicinity of Herrington Country Park swing by The Stables (McClaren Way; tel. +44 (0)191 5849226) for lunch. Better still, book a table well in advance and hope you pick a fine day for a walk in the landscaped park – if not you can experience an afternoon of real ale. This is a country pub packed with bric-a-brac and atmosphere. The menu includes modern British dishes as well as tasty international bites. The chicken liver pate and mussels in Thai sauce are two standout options.

How to get to Sunderland

Grand Central runs a direct rail service between London Kings Cross and Sunderland. The journey takes approximately 3 hours 30 minutes.

The journey from Newcastle International Airport to Sunderland takes 52 minutes on the Tyne and Wear Metro. The Metro takes 27 minutes to get between Newcastle Central Station and Sunderland.

Where to stay in Sunderland

Rooms at the Travelodge Sunderland Central hotel (Low Row) place you in the centre of the city.

The Sunderland Marriott Hotel (Queens Parade), on the seafront at Seaburn, is the city’s only 4-star property. The 82-room hotel has a pool and fitness room plus an on-site restaurant and bar.

Further information

See the SeeitdoitSunderland website for further ideas on what to do and where to go in Sunderland.

The National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England.

The National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England.

The reconstructed Roman fort at Pohl, Germany.

New old-fashioned food at Pohl Roman fortlet

It’s lunchtime at Pohl in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate and the food being served is new to me. The recipes, though, were written down over 1,600 years ago. Today’s cuisine is Roman.

That’s fitting as I’m sitting in the café-restaurant of Pohl’s Roman fortlet, a reconstruction of one of the fortifications that marked the frontier of the Roman Empire in German territory from around 85AD to 260AD. The Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes runs 550km through the country, between Bad Hönningen on the River Rhine and Regensburg on the River Danube, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.

Germany’s scenic Limes Road

A scenic tourist route, the Limes Strasse (meaning ‘Limes Road’), runs close to the site of the ancient frontier. The road runs for more than 700km and passes through more than 80 towns. I’m driving northwards along a section of the Limes Road.

Archaeological evidence of an earth and timber fortlet was first unearthed at Pohl in 1903. The replica that I’m in was built near the original site and opened on 1 October 2011. It’s now a community-run open-air museum.

Pohl’s reconstructed Roman fortlet

Care was taken to make the fortlet as authentic as possible. Wild flowers and long grass now grow on the earth ramparts forming the outline of the site. I’ll take a look at the main hall, barrack rooms and Pohl’s display of Roman artefacts after lunch. A tour of the site will have to wait. Even an army marches on its stomach, as Napoleon Bonaparte said.

I’m dining with Michael Rodschinka who normally works at the reconstructed Roman watchtower at Idstein. A similar tower stands outside of this fortlet. In excess of 1,000 watchtowers once stood along the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes, which also featured a series of ditches, more than 90 forts plus either a palisade or three metre high wall.

Reconstructed Roman tower by the fortlet at Pohl, Germany.

Reconstructed watchtower by the Roman fortlet at Pohl, Germany.

A Roman legacy in Germany

Mulsum, a slightly sweet, herby drink is served. It’s a blend of wine and honey and tastes reminiscent of mulled wine. Mr Rodschinka explains it was served to welcome guests or as an aperitif. To my surprise he also tells me it was forbidden for women to drink wine in Roman times.

I hear how Roman demand for wine resulted in vines being planted in the Moselle Valley and Rhineland, regions that continue to produce wines.

The food is served on brown crockery, similar to that used by the Romans. The starter includes dates cooked in bacon jackets plus portions of lightly seasoned liver sausage and moretum, goat’s cheese with herbs. We spread them on freshly baked flat bread.

Roman food with a German twist

Mr Rodschinka tells me how the Romans would have integrated local ingredients into their diet. “There’s lots of hazelnuts in our region and to sweeten things they always used honey,” he adds. Fruit such as apricots were also used to sweeten dishes and provide flavour.

I hear how apples would have been served in autumn with pork. The troops based at Pohl would have been able to hunt wild boar.

The main course, Roman goulash, proves delicious. I’m so impressed I ask the cook for the recipe. Thankfully, she was willing to share her secret.

Tucking in, I look forward to exploring the fortlet and getting my teeth into more of its history.

Roman goulash served Pohl in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.

Roman goulash served Pohl in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.

Recipe – Roman Goulash (Pork Ragout with Apricots)

The recipe originates from the Apicius cookbook, recipes collected and set down for posterity at around the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries – long after Imperial Rome’s authority had collapsed in Germany. Though the book lists ingredients it does not specify quantities, so if you want to experiment or change things about to suit your palette then, of course, feel free to do so.

Paprika, which gives traditional Hungarian goulash its bite, is derived from the spicy capsicums that were introduced to Europe from the New World in Iberian ships during Early Modern times. Roman citizens would not have known them.

During the height of the Roman Empire black pepper would have been carried to Europe from the Orient and was an expensive, luxury item. Some economic historians suggest the eastward flow of gold and silver was a factor in Rome’s decline and fall. So, delicious as it is, perhaps dishes such as this one contributed to the abandonment of Pohl in the second half of the third century?

Ingredients

750 grams of chopped pork

Olive oil for frying

2 onions

¼ litre of white wine

60 ml of sherry or Marsala wine

100 grams of dried apricots

2.5 tablespoons of fish sauce

2.5 tablespoons of honey

2 tablespoons of vinegar

1.5 tablespoons of dried mint

1.5 tablespoons of cumin

1 tablespoons of chopped dill

½ tablespoon of crushed black pepper

Method

  1. Fry the pork in olive oil until it is brown. Set to one side.
  2. Fry the chopped onions in olive oil until they are clear then add the wine and fish sauce.
  3. Slowly stir in the fried pork and its juice.
  4. Crush and blend the spices using a pestle and mortar, then add them to the pan and braise for 30 minutes. Add water if necessary.
  5. Slice the apricots and add along them with the honey, braising the mix until the meat is tender.

Serve with freshly baked bread.

Millstone and stove in a barrack room at Pohl Roman fortlet.

Millstone and stove in a barrack room at Pohl Roman fortlet.

Further information

See the Pohl Roman fortlet website for information (in German) on opening times and entry prices.

View the German Limes Road website for further information on its route and history.

For more about the country as a whole take a look at the German National Tourist Board website.

Getting there

Pohl Roman fortlet (Kirchstrasse, 56357 Pohl) is in the Rhineland-Palatinate, 50 miles (80km) from Frankfurt International Airport. By car the journey takes around 60 minutes.  Follow the B260 from Wiesbaden in the direction of Koblenz.

Courtyard of Pohl Roman fortlet in Germany

Courtyard of Pohl Roman fortlet in Germany.

Grilled aubergine topped with mozzarella cheese and haskapa berries. Recipe included.

Discovering haskap berries in Nova Scotia, Canada

One of the key reasons I love travel is it provides opportunities to explore the flavours of a place. That encompasses eating in restaurants, trying local snacks and looking out for products I don’t see in shops and markets back at home.

Recently, while driving towards the historic coastal town of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, Canada, my guide, Pam, pointed out a field with neatly arranged rows of bushes, about waist high. “Over there’s a farm growing haskap berries,” she uttered.

“Has-what berries?” was my response. I have to admit, I’d never previously heard of haskap berries.

Haskap berries – the next big thing?

Pam explained the berries originate from Siberia and thrived on Japan’s northerly Hokkaido island, the location of the world’s first commercial haskap farming. Farmers in Canada realised the climate and terroir of parts of Nova Scotia are also well suited to growing haskap. The berry is still being cultivated on a relatively small scale but, apparently, there’s excitement things could be set to take off.

Some people believe the berries will prove “the next big thing” in terms of healthy eating. At the 2013 World Juice Awards haskap was named “Best New Juice”. Haskap is regarded as a super-fruit due to the fruit’s high levels of antioxidants. The berries – which are blue and grow to around an inch long – contain high levels of vitamin C, phenolic compounds and anthocyanins.

Jamie Oliver in Canada

A life-size cut-out of Jamie Oliver greeted us at the Sobeys supermarket we popped in with the intention of purchasing a bottle of the juice. The British chef has a partnership with the Canadian supermarket chain, to promote eating healthily. I couldn’t help glancing up at banners bearing his image, hanging from the ceiling, as we sought out the supermarket’s Taste of Nova Scotia stand, showcasing products from the province.

Rather than buying just a bottle of the juice, I eventually picked up a box entitled the Haskap experience, holding a 150ml bottle of juice, two ounces of jam and 50 grams of dried berries. The packaging showed the measurements just as I’ve written them here – a mixture of metric and imperial.

The juice and dried berries are dark blue in colour. I found their flavour pleasantly tangy. It made me think of a combination of blueberries, blackberries and cranberries. Would I seek out the juice again? Yes. I look forward to seeing it on shelves of stores in the United Kingdom.

Grilled aubergine topped with mozzarella cheese and haskapa berries served with wine.

Grilled aubergine topped with mozzarella cheese and haskapa berries served with wine.

Recipe – Grilled aubergine with haskap berries and mozzarella

I came up with the following recipe for using haskap berries. It may be slightly unusual to use fruit in what is essentially a savoury dish, but the combination proved delicious.

Ingredients

1 Aubergine (Eggplant)

Mozzarella Cheese (150g)

Haskap berries (30g)

Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper to season

Method

  1. Cut the aubergine into slices up to 1cm thick.
  2. Brush olive oil onto the aubergine. Work quickly to avoid it soaking into the aubergine’s flesh.
  3. Place the aubergine slices with the oiled side up under a hot grill and cook until golden (c. 4 minutes).
  4. Turn the aubergine slices and grill for a couple of minutes.
  5. Season the aubergine with salt and pepper.
  6. Add chopped slices of mozzarella. Top with haskap berries. Replace under the grill until the cheese has melted.
  7. Serve while warm, either alone or with an accompanying salad.

Further information

Find out more about haskap berries and products via the Haskapa website.

Discover more about the province in which the berries are being produced via the Tourism Nova Scotia homepage.  For more information about the country as a whole, see the Explore Canada website.

Getting there

Stuart flew from Gatwick Airport to Halifax, Nova Scotia with Icelandair, via the airline’s Keflavik hub. See the Icelandair website for information relating to flight availability and prices.

Grilled aubergine topped with mozzarella cheese and haskapa berries.

Grilled aubergine topped with mozzarella cheese and haskapa berries.

Modern skyscrapers and Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

A stopover in Doha, Qatar

Doha, the capital of Qatar, has undergone marked expansion in recent years. Its heart remains the area around Souq Waqif, an Arabian bazaar, and the Corniche, a 7km waterfront, both of which can be explored on foot if you plan a stopover in Doha.

Around 900,000 people now live in the city yet the journey between the Corniche and the airport takes a mere matter of minutes. Qatar tops the International Monetary Fund’s table of world nations ranked by Gross Domestic Product per capita. As you might expect from that indicator of economic clout, the road infrastructure here is good.

Budding into the Persian Gulf

It doesn’t take long to reach anywhere within Qatar. The country’s landmass – a rosebud-shaped peninsula – juts from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. It measures just 160km from north to south and half of that from east to west.

Locals might tell you Doha is actually a cluster of self-contained cities. If you spend more than a couple of days here you’ll be able to tour the likes of Hamad Medical City, Education City and the waterfront development at Lusail City. If grand engineering projects are your thing then you’ll be impressed by the four million square metres of land that have been reclaimed to build Pearl Qatar, where high-rise buildings tower over circular marinas.

Modern skyscrapers form the skyline of Doha, Qatar.

Modern skyscrapers form the skyline of Doha, Qatar.

Doha’s hotels, museums and shopping malls

Temperatures regularly soar beyond 42°C during July and August, the hottest and most humid months, meaning it’s best to spend the middle of the day in air-conditioned buildings. You can seek refuge from the heat in hotels, museums and shopping malls.

Locals tend to take their exercise early in the morning or around dusk. The Corniche is popular with walkers and joggers. Even if you’re not feeling sporty it’s worth heading to the waterfront to look over the shimmering bay towards a skyline featuring thrusting skyscrapers with modern designs.

The foundation of modern Qatar

The man recognised as the founder of modern Qatar, Sheikh Qassim Bin Mohamed Al Thani, would probably be unable to recognise the modest settlement he knew as Al Bidda. On 25 March 1893 he successfully led Qatari tribes into battle against Ottoman forces at Al Wajba. His successors continue to rule. For a time Qatar was a British Protectorate but has been an independent nation since 3 September 1971.

Prior to the discovery of oil here, the people who lived along the coast would have eked a meagre living from pearl diving, fishing and making purple dye from murex sea snails. A number of PADI-affiliated scuba diving centres are based in Doha, meaning you can explore the warm waters of the Gulf, providing you have adequate time ahead of your flight. If you prefer the water’s surface you can book a tour on a dhow, one of the wood-built Arabian boats formerly used to trade goods.

Night in Doha, Qatar.

Night in Doha, Qatar.

Shopping in the Souq Waqif

They once brought in spices, silks and cotton. One of the highlights of a visit to Doha is a stroll through the narrow, covered lanes of the Souq Waqif. Clothing, souvenirs, household goods and pets are all sold on the stalls of the bazaar, which remains open until around 10.00pm.

Depending on when you visit you might see women selling deliciously aromatic, homestyle food outside the souq. It’s worth buying a portion to dine outside on the lawns by the Corniche or in Al Rumeila Park. Picnics are a popular pastime here.

Jewellery in the Gold Souq

For a different perspective into Qatari heritage wander over to the Gold Souq, which is a great place to view intricately crafted sets of bridal jewellery and examples of Bedouin style silver. No sales tax is levied on purchases.

Don’t be surprised if you see the occasional bird of prey too. Falconry shops sell hoods, fittings and gloves for handling the birds. They may even have a falcon or two in the store. The owners have become accustomed to intrigued foreign visitors popping through their doors and taking photographs.

The Museum of Islamic Art

For insights into the region’s cultural heritage head to the Museum of Islamic Art, situated on a man-made island by the Corniche. The iconic building opened in 2008 and was designed by I.M. Pei, the architect whose opus includes the Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

A dhow sails past the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

A dhow sails past the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

If you enjoy contemporary art then the Arab Museum of Modern Art may be your thing. Alternatively, if it’s ornately finished handicrafts you appreciate, you could arrange a visit to the compact Weaponry Museum. Swords and curved khanjar daggers dating from the 16th century onwards are displayed. One of the khanjar’s belonged to the Thomas Edward Lawrence, the Briton played by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.

In the downtown area you’re now more likely to see robed Qatari men climbing into powerful four wheel drive vehicles than onto the backs of camels.

There’s much to experience and observe in Doha. If you haven’t yet been it’s a rewarding place to break a long journey as you fly through Qatar Airways hub.

Things to do in Doha

  • Play a round at Doha Golf Club. Peter Harradine designed the 7,374-yard championship course, which was opened in 1997.
  • Get active and explore the landscape. Book an off-road desert safari in a four wheel drive vehicle. Alternatively, try quad biking or sand skiing.
  • Find out about aspects of calligraphy, Islam and Arabic at Fanar Qatar Islamic Cultural Center.
  • Keep your eyes open for news about the opening of the new National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel.
  • Visit the Ethnographic Museum in a building known as Wind Tower House. Dating from the 1930s it utilises traditional air cooling that was once widespread in the region.

Further information

See the Qatar Tourism Authority website.

Traditional wooden dhow boats in the Cornich marina, at sunset in Doha, Qatar

Traditional wooden dhow boats in the Cornich marina, at sunset in Doha, Qatar

Cheese served with artichoke, lemon, wood sorrel and clover at the Restaurant de Jong in Rotterdam.

Talking Taste: Restaurant de Jong, Rotterdam

“When I was 21 I came back to Holland and I opened my first restaurant,” says chef Jim de Jong as we chat in the arched dining room of Restaurant de Jong in Rotterdam.

The 27-year-old reveals he spent time working at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, for Gordon Ramsay and also in a Montpellier restaurant with two Michelin stars before returning to the city where he grew up.

Restaurant de Jong is Jim’s second business venture and is proving popular. It proves tricky to get a table on Friday and Saturday evenings unless you reserve a couple of weeks in advance. You might be lucky if you call on a weekday but even then it makes sense to book a week or so ahead.

Tasty, attractively presented food

The dishes created by Jim and his team are beautifully presented – the kind of food you see posted on Instagram and wish was yours. I’ve just enjoyed a cheese-based tasting menu and I’m looking forward to reviewing my photos of his carefully arranged dishes. Edible flowers added dashes of colour. The flavours and textures were just as satisfying as the appearance of the food.

This isn’t the kind of place you visit and order a la carte. It’s possible the dishes served will differ each time you come here. Diners are faced with a simple choice when ordering at Restaurant de Jong – the vegetable or non-vegetable menu. Each consists of four courses. The waiting staff ask diners if they have any allergies or dislike anything and the team at work in the open kitchen prepare dishes accordingly.

Close to Rotterdam’s Centraal Station

When I arrived the sun was streaming down on tables out on the terrace. The restaurant occupies space below an old railway arch and is within easy walking distance of Rotterdam’s recently opened Centraal Station.

“The north part of Rotterdam is very up-and-coming. There’s a lot of young entrepreneurs and young people starting businesses here. I grew up in this part of the city, so there’s a lot of engagement with this place,” says Jim with enthusiasm.

Chef Jim de Jong at Restaurant de Jong in Rotterdam.

Chef Jim de Jong at Restaurant de Jong in Rotterdam.

Vegetables but not vegetarian

“We want to give a stage for vegetables, to make vegetables more popular without being a vegetarian restaurant. We never speak the word vegetarian or of a vegetarian menu in this restaurant. We don’t use tofu or tempeh, it’s just vegetables,” he explains.

This fits with Jim’s view on nutrition: “I think that, globally, we should eat less meat. So if we use meat we use very good meat – organic and we give small portions. We give a lot of vegetables and it seems to work quite nice.”

“One of my heroes is still Alain Passard, from Paris, but also the Scandinavian guys from Noma,” he answers when I ask about his influences. Jim explains the food served in his restaurant reflects a mixture of cuisines, including Dutch and Nordic cooking.

I learn the cheese-based menu I’ve just enjoyed was only created today. Jim left the choice of Dutch cheeses to his regular supplier, tasting them in the morning and combining them some of the other products on his menu.

Tasting and creative cooking

“When I taste the Bergens Blonde cheese it tastes a bit like the sea. I immediately think of asparagus. Some connections in my mind result in these dishes. For every chef it’s different – it’s like tasting wine. It’s also your memories of things from your childhood or along the way. That’s why every chef should make his own dishes. If you copy things when you’re a chef you’ll probably end up being not so good. You have to put on the plate what’s on your mind. That’s what we do every day here. We freestyle,” says Jim passionately.

“There are also dishes that evolve. We have several that contain a hummus of broad beans…We have one dish that’s based on two ingredients, asparagus and Kalamata olives, which is a very good combination…We have a skeleton, some things on the menu that stay the same. We need some stability. Two, three, four dishes a day change,” he adds.

A broth made from goat's cheese served with shallots, radish flowers and pickled onion served at Restaurant de Jong.

A broth made from goat’s cheese served with shallots, radish flowers and pickled onion served at Restaurant de Jong.

Seasonal and local produce

I’m keen to find out if Jim has a signature dish.

“We have a steak tartare but made from tomatoes. The structure of the tomato’s flesh is almost the same as meat. People know when the tomato season starts we’ll put this on the menu,” answers Jim.

“The season is very important. Products are always better when they are in season. When you buy local, let’s say tomatoes, I buy them from a farmer not far from here. I buy them directly so I tell him to pick his tomatoes when they are almost falling off the plant. If you buy them from France, Italy or further away they pick them when they are green, so there’s no flavour to the tomatoes,” he explains.

“I’m not really religious when it comes to local. I think when the sunshine is better and more, in Italy for example, the peaches growing there have more intensity, so I can buy them. It depends on the product. We have a very good soil for legumes – beans – potatoes and carrots. So you have to know which vegetables or fruit to buy locally and which is best to buy elsewhere,” says Jim.

The food Jim has served at Restaurant de Jong made a positive impression and I’d be happy to return to see what’s on the menu.

Restaurant de Jong

Restaurant de Jong is at Raampoortstraat 38, 3032 AH Rotterdam. Call +31 (0)10 4657955. At the time of publication the four course menu is priced at €45.

Getting there

Restaurant de Jong is within walking distance of Rotterdam Centraal railway station. Rail fares from London to Rotterdam start from £116 per person for a standard class return. The journey takes from 4 hours 4 minutes. To find out more or make a booking see the Voyages SNCF website (Voyages-sncf Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EU; tel. +44 (0)844 8485848). Direct trains between Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport and Rotterdam Centraal take from 27 minutes.

Further information

Find out more about the city on the Rotterdam Info and Holland websites.

Goat's cheese served with white asparagus and samphire at Restaurant de Jong in Rotterdam.

Goat’s cheese served with white asparagus and samphire at Restaurant de Jong in Rotterdam.

India Gate, on the top sightseeing attractions in New Delhi, India

Exploring the heritage of New Delhi, India

The sun has only just peeked above the horizon but I’m already out on the streets of New Delhi. I want to make the most of my time in India’s capital and the golden hour, shortly after sunrise, is a great time for viewing the city’s architecture.

The soft sunlight is painting the stone of the India Gate the colour of honey. Looking up I read some of the 13,218 names inscribed on the 42 metre tall arch, designed by Sir Edwin Luytens and unveiled as the All India War Memorial by Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy, in 1931. It was in that year that New Delhi was officially inaugurated, almost two decades after George V, the Emperor of India, announced his capital was moving here, from Calcutta, during the Delhi Durbar of December 1911.

Exploring Delhi on foot

Delhi, of course, has a far longer history and I see evidence of it within a short stroll of the India Gate. Still within the boundaries of New Delhi, over at the Purana Qila, I take a look at the walls of the old fortress overlooking the River Yamuna and learn how archaeologists have excavated Painted Grey Ware pottery from the site, indicating that people lived here more than 3,000 years ago. The Mughal emperors, who held power from the 16th century until 1857, ordered the reinforcement of the fort’s walls which, in places, bear chatri-style turrets.

I stride onwards to Humayan’s Tomb, the mausoleum of the powerful emperor who died in 1556. The elegant symmetry leaves me in no doubt as to why the tomb is regarded as one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I then visit Safdarjung’s Tomb, built as the resting place for an influential 18th century statesman. Both are topped by vast cupolas and set within well-tended gardens. While I’ve come specifically to see the historic monuments, Delhiites dressed in loose-fitting sports gear are here to take morning power walks along the footpaths.

A man photographs at the Baha'i House of Worship (Lotus Temple), one of the best known landmarks of New Delhi, India

A man photographs at the Baha’i House of Worship (Lotus Temple), one of the best known landmarks of New Delhi, India

Cricket by the Rajpath

Countless informal cricket matches are in full swing by the time I’m back on the Rajpath, the broad avenue running between India Gate and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India. “Ball! Ball!” comes an imploring shout as a tennis ball rolls by my feet. I chuck it back to a waving bowler and a game resumes.

Up ahead I see the star-topped Jaipur Column rising in front of the domed, Classical style governmental buildings that are collectively regarded as the heart of Luytens’ Delhi, a term honouring the chief architect of the programme to design New Delhi. Yet that name is slightly misleading. Two of the grandest edifices, the Secretariat buildings on either side of the Rajpath, were actually the work of Sir Herbert Baker.

Independence from the British Empire

As I come closer to the buildings I note how traditional Indian elements – such as latticed jali screens, similar to those I saw earlier in the Mughal tombs, and sculpted elephants – have been incorporated into the facades. On columns in the forecourt of the building on the north side of the avenue I see inscriptions, from 1930, recording they were gifts from South Africa and New Zealand. Just 17 years later India had attained independence from the British Empire.

By the ornate gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which was designed to be the Viceroy’s House, an aged Indian man with smiling eyes proudly tells me the building is the largest residence of any head of state in the world and has 360 rooms. Seeing my camera he urges me to take a rickshaw to Gandhi Smirti, the house where Mahatma Gandhi spent the final 144 days of his life. “The Martyr’s Column marks the spot where the father of our nation breathed his last,” he says with a look of sadness.

The Laxminarayan Temple, known as the Birla Mandir, in Delhi, India

The Laxminarayan Temple, known as the Birla Mandir, in Delhi, India

Star gazing and national heritage

I’m grateful for his helpful suggestion as there’s much to do within New Delhi. One attraction that’s already on my itinerary is the National Museum, which displays artefacts providing an overview of five millennia of the Subcontinent’s heritage. If time allows I’ll also pop into the National Museum of Natural History and the Nehru Planetarium.

First though, I head to the Jantar Mantar, to view the 13 sculpture-like instruments designed so that Maharaja Jai Singh II could make detailed astronomical observations in the early 18th century. The interplay of light and shadow on the steps, curves and arches of the red and white structures proves intensely photogenic.

Delhi’s temples and architecture

So too does the flower-like design of the Lotus Temple, the Baha’i House of Worship designed by Fariborz Sahba. I join the throng of people staring with wonder at the structure and spend a few minutes ruminating within the cool interior, looking towards the nine-pointed star at the centre of the ceiling within the 1,300 seat hall.

I hail a rickshaw and negotiate a price for the ride to the Laxminarayan Temple, which was constructed shortly after the inauguration of New Delhi and ceremonially opened by Mahatma Gandhi in 1939. After taking a look at the frescoes inside I decide to take a walk in gardens holding numerous sculptures.

With daylight beginning to fade I head to the circular park at the heart of Connaught Place, the commercial hub also known as Rajiv Chowk. The real estate prices here may be among the highest in the world but those on the menus of restaurants are reassuringly restrained and sightseeing has made me hungry.

Further information

Find out more about the city by visiting the Delhi Tourism website.

For insights into the country as a whole take a look at the Incredible India website.

Sunrise silhouettes a chhattri or chatri, a traditional Indian architectural feature, in New Delhi, India

Sunrise silhouettes a chhattri or chatri, a traditional Indian architectural feature, in New Delhi, India

The Veloservice team, multilingual city guides who takes rickshaw tours of the old town (Bari Vecchio) in Bari, Apulia, Italy

A culinary rickshaw tour of Bari, Italy

“Bari is flat, so it’s perfect for cycling,” says Alf, who turns to look at me as he pedals. I have it easy, I’m sat under the canopy of his rickshaw and taking a foodie tour around Bari Vecchia, the old town in the heart of Apulia capital.

We’re in Italy but Alf, or Alfredo, is Spanish. He’s one of a team of Veloservice’s multilingual rickshaw drivers. The company works mainly with tour and cruise groups but also offers bespoke tours. The goal of mine is to gain a taster of Bari’s heritage and cuisine.

Touring the streets of Bari Vecchia

As we roll into town, along the busy Corso Cavour, warm evening sunlight casts long shadows. While we’re underway I learn that just 2,000 of Bari’s 320,000 inhabitants live in Bari Vecchia, which has 30 churches.

We pause on the Piazza del Ferrarese, a public square where locals are sitting and chatting – a handful have brought chairs from their houses. It strikes me that on Britain’s streets it’s youths who hang out together but here it’s often old men in flat caps. Not all though. A couple of young lads pass a football back and forth. An inquisitive kid comes over to inspect the rickshaw. We’re parked next to a sunken, uncovered section of Roman road.

Pilloried at Piazza Mercantile

At the Piazza Mercantile we stop by the ‘column of justice’ a stone pillory with a medieval lion sculpture. I hear how in bygone times people would have been tied naked to the pillory and humiliated on market days. Bars now surround the square, which becomes the hub for weekend nightlife. Freshly landed fish used to be sold on the square, in front of the governor’s palace. Being based near the harbour meant the authorities were well-placed for levying taxes and controlling the arrival of pilgrims.

“This is the most important city in the West for Orthodox people,” says Alf as he navigates along narrow lanes with time worn beige flagstones, turning expertly between stone buildings which have a warm, pinky hue. Rickshaws can enter alleys that are not accessible to cars.

Visiting the Basilica of St Nicholas

At the Basilica of St Nicholas I look up at the huge, east-facing rose window that lets light flood the church on mornings. The design is typical of Apulian churches. As the sun rises the interior remains in shadow and cool.

Oxen are carved by the main entrance of the basilica, which has an Orthodox chapel in the crypt and a grand Roman Catholic altar on the ground floor. In medieval times the relics of saints were key to drawing pilgrims, so good for a city’s economy. A party of sailors raided Myra, in modern day Turkey, for the bones of St Nicholas and brought them back on 8 May 1087. According to legend, the oxen drawing his relics refused to budge once they reached this spot. It was regarded a divine sign, so chosen as the location for the basilica.

A statue of St Nicholas stands outside. It was a gift from Russia and came with a greeting from Vladimir Putin, who has visited the crypt.

The origins of Santa Claus

By the la colonna miracolosa, a red stone column inside an iron cage, I hear how women throw bigliettini (‘little tickets’) inside. They bear the name of man they’d like to be their husband.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of children as well as women. My guide recounts a legend about a poor family, with three daughters, living in Myra during the 4th century. Poverty forced the women into prostitution. Over three separate nights, St Nicholas is said to have dropped three golden balls (with which you’ll see him depicted in paintings and statues) down the chimney, thus providing for their dowries and saving them from their profession.

Back then his intervention was deemed a miracle. Today searching questions would probably be asked if a bishop was to leave gold at a house inhabited by prostitutes. If you’ve ever wondered why Santa Claus slips down chimneys to deliver gifts then the basis is this legend.

Fresh focaccia at the Panificio Fiore in Bari, Italy

Fresh focaccia at the Panificio Fiore in Bari, Italy

Where to find freshly baked Focaccia

Around the corner from the basilica we head into Panificio Fiore (Strada Palazzo di Città 38), a bakery from which the delicious aroma of fresh bread is wafting. The interior walls bear icons of St Nicholas. Amphorae stand by carved pillars – remnants from an 8th century church. Focaccia bread is sold by weight. Slices cost around €1 each and are proving popular with locals.

I’m ushered into the kitchen, where a smiling baker greets me while kneading dough with his fingertips in the style of a manic piano player playing a concerto. Exuberantly, he sprinkles salt and olive oil over the circular dough before chucking on a topping of olives and tomatoes.

“I make 50 to 60 in a half-day shift. More if the weather’s really good and we have lots of tourists,” he says before placing his work into the bakery’s wood-fired oven. On leaving I grab a slice of his handiwork, which is simple and delicious.

A delicatessen with Apulian cuisine

Alf pedals us past the subtly illuminated white façade of Bari’s cathedral to the Antica Salumeria (Strada dei Bianchi Dottula 17), a rustic, family-run delicatessen with a boar’s head by the door. Flintlock pistols are ranged on the walls, above stone arches. In broken English the owner tells me the shop has been in his family for four generations and 150 years.

Bottles of wine, regional cheeses and taralli (bread rings made from flour and olive oil), are among the wares on sale in the attractively laid out store. I nibble on olives, dip into an intensely creamy strachiatella cheese and taste Apulian salami before moving on.

The Antica Salumeria deli in Bari, Italy

The Antica Salumeria deli in Bari, Italy

Street food in Bari Vecchia

On an under lit square in the centre of Bari Vecchia a woman wearing a blue striped pinafore stands under a once red, sun-bleached umbrella that bears a Peroni advert. Hot oil fizzles in a broad pan and she fries slices of polenta to make sgagliozze. As she cooks I learn this woman is called Carmela. She sprinkles salt onto the sgagliozze. Six slices, served on a paper plate, cost €1. This is what locals eat after they’ve had a couple of drinks I learn. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of deep fried food.

Carmela is, however, a fantastic cook. Using a knife, she scrapes a doughy sausage of fresh pasta – made from semolina flours and water – along a wooden board. Working at speed with her thumbs she creates ear-shaped forms known as orecchiette, Bari’s traditional pasta.

Carmela prepares orecchiette, a pasta shape named after 'little ears', in the Bari Vecchia quarter of Bari, Apulia, Italy

Carmela prepares orecchiette, a pasta shape named after ‘little ears’, in the Bari Vecchia quarter of Bari, Apulia, Italy

Orecchiette – Bari’s speciality pasta

Hundreds of orecchiette dry on a metal grill by her table. She’s one of dozens of women who sit outdoors in the old town, making pasta which is sold directly to passing individuals as well as restaurants and hotels. With a rasping voice Carmela explains she started making orecchiette aged six.

She returns to her pans when the leaves of a broccoli-like vegetable, cime di rapa, are simmering. Carmela adds orecchiette. In a separate pan, with a tomato sauce, she heats anchovies, garlic and olive oil. The result is delicious, inexpensive food that I eat while sat by plastic table a couple of metres from her stall.

Alf, too, has enjoyed a plateful of orecchiette, so is fuelled for the journey back to the hotel. It’s been an insightful tour and an enjoyable way of tasting the traditional cuisine of Bari and the Apulia region.

Further information

To learn more about attractions the Apulia region see the Pugliapromozione – Apulia Tourism’s website.

If you’re thinking about combining a visit to Apulia with other destinations in Italy, see the Italian Tourism website.

For details on how to book a rickshaw tour, a bicycle tour or to hire a cycle take a look at the Veloservice website (Strada Vallisa 81, 70122 Bari; tel. +39 389 6207353).

Where to stay in Bari

The VOI Hotel Oriente (Corso Cavour 32, 70122 Bari; tel. +39 (0)80 5255100) is a 4-star hotel located near the Teatro Petruzzelli, within a 10-minute stroll of Bari’s old town. The hotel has 75 guestrooms, meeting facilities plus a bar-restaurant which doubles as the breakfast room. The building was constructed in 1928 as the Palazzo Marroccoli. Head up to the rooftop to enjoy an evening drink with views over the city.

Where to eat and drink in Bari

If you’re in the mood for an ice cream choose from the many flavours available at the long-established Martinucci café on Piazza Mercantile.

To enjoy a glass of Apulia’s Primitivo wine in a central setting head to the terrace of La Parilla de Juan (Piazza Mercantle 21), where wi-fi is available.

How to get there

Alitalia operates direct flights between London Stansted and Karol Wojtyla International Airport (named in honour of the man who became Pope John Paul II). KLM flies between Newcastle International Airport and Bari, via its Amsterdam Schiphol hub.

A pan of orecchiette, a local pasta dish, at an outdoor kitchen in the Bari Vecchia quarter of Bari, Apulia, Italy.

A pan of orecchiette, a local pasta dish, at an outdoor kitchen in the Bari Vecchia quarter of Bari, Apulia, Italy.

An extract from Vincent van Gogh's painting 'The Sower' at the Kröller-Müller Museum at Otterlo in the Netherlands.

Cycling, Van Gogh & the Kröller-Müller Museum

My hands are freezing, throbbing with pain. Sleety rain is lashing against my half-numb face. I can barely see the road ahead as I navigate my bicycle through Hoge Veluwe National Park, near Otterlo in the Netherlands.

What did I expect going cycling in February? And why did I forget my gloves?

To be fair, a member of staff in the heated foyer of the nearby Kröller-Müller Museum did suggest that I’d be better off returning in summer if I wanted to go cycling. In the practical, direct manner of the Dutch he gestured to the grey sky and wet footpath and said I should stay indoors to browse the artworks.

The Kröller-Müller Museum Collection

There’s lots to see. The museum has more than 20,000 of modern and contemporary artworks. The Kröller-Müller’s collection of 91 paintings and 182 drawings by Vincent van Gogh constitutes the second largest in the world (after Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum). It also holds works by the likes of Piet Mondriaan, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Renoir. Pieces by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Barbara Hepworth stand among those displayed in the museum’s 25-hectare sculpture garden.

Still, I needed some exercise. Above all, I really wanted to have a go on one of the white bicycles that hang from stands at various locations around the national park. The bikes are free to use and I was bursting to gain an impression of the dunes and forestation of the Hoge Veluwe. With my thigh muscles burning I’ve just about made it back to the stand by the museum. What’s a little cold and a bit of pain? It was good to get out, despite the bracing weather.

The Kröller-Müller’s History and Architecture

Thankfully the gentleman who made the helpful remarks prior to my departure is no longer present when I step back through the doors of the Kröller-Müller Museum – they first opened to the public back in 1938.

The oldest part of the museum was designed by the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde, to house a collection of around 11,500 artworks put together by the industrialist Anton Kröller and his wife Helene Kröller-Müller. A further wing, designed by Wim Quist, was added in the 1970s. Even on an overcast day plenty of natural light floods into the museum, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights.

Van Gogh's 'Terrace of a Café at Night' and Angeline the guide in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Van Gogh’s ‘Terrace of a Café at Night’ and Angeline the guide in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

“Most people come here especially for the Van Gogh collection and the sculpture garden,” says Angeline, a guide who works at the museum and has more than 25 years of experience.

As we view the Van Gogh collection together Angeline provides titbits of information that I find fascinating. “The paintings that are signed are when it is a gift or he thinks they are well done,” she says.

Sure enough, looking around I see that not all of them bear the Vincent signature. I’d assumed he added them to all of his works.

Building the Vincent van Gogh Collection

One of the walls has a graphic showing the prices Helene Kröller-Müller paid to acquire Van Gogh’s works. The first – The Edge of the Wood, painted in September 1883 – cost just 110 guilders. Even the outlay of 100,000 guilders for a collection of drawings, in 1928, seems a remarkably savvy investment given the prices paid for Van Gogh artworks today.

Angeline points out how the family depicted in the famous painting The Potato Eaters can be seen with a coffee pot. “The family drank coffee because they had to stay awake,” she explains of the work created at Nuenen during the spring of 1885. “He did it in three evenings.” Apparently the female in the centre of the painting was a later addition.

As we continue to look at the collection, Angeline points out how Van Gogh varies his angle of perspective and draws on her deep knowledge of his influences.

Renowned Van Gogh Paintings

We pause in front of Terrace of a Café at Night. The famous painting from 1888 depicts the warmly lit exterior of a café on the Place du Forum in Arles. Angeline points out subtle details that many people simply don’t register. I let out a knowing ah! in acknowledgement that the area of light under café’s canopy is orange and green rather than yellow. Many people assume the latter.

Maybe the attendant in the foyer had a point. As I look at the textures and use of colours on Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed I realise there really is no need to step outside of the Kröller-Müller Museum on a cold, rainy day.

Further information

See the Kröller-Müller Museum (Houtkampweg 6; tel. +31 (0)318 591241) website for up-to-date information regarding opening times, entry prices and exhibitions. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Until 27 September 2015 the Van Gogh & Co. Criss-Crossing the Collection exhibition will be displayed, coinciding with commemorations to mark the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death on 29 July 2015. More than 50 works by Van Gogh will be shown along with pieces by his contemporaries.

30 European art institutions are hosting exhibitions to explore Van Gogh’s artistic achievements through the Van Gogh – 125 years of inspiration programme.

Vincent van Gogh's signature on a painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Vincent van Gogh’s signature on a painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Royal Ascot - photo courtesy of Visit England / Doug Harding.

Royal Ascot – horse racing & high society

Mention Ascot and images of gentlemen wearing top hats and elegantly dressed ladies are conjured into most people’s heads. The small town 30 miles west of central London – and a short hop from Heathrow – is synonymous with scenes from the annual Royal Ascot race meeting, held for five days each June.

It’s more than just horse racing. Royal Ascot is a key event in the British social calendar. Queen Elizabeth II has attended each of the meetings held since she ascended the throne in 1952. The arrival of the royal family at the racetrack has become a much-anticipated tradition. Each morning they are driven to the Royal Enclosure in an open-topped, horse-drawn carriage and the royal standard is raised to mark their presence.

Windsor Great Park

Ascot, which is adjacent to Windsor Great Park, is actually leased from the Crown Estate. It’s said the idea to hold a race meeting here came from Queen Anne, who spotted the area’s potential while out riding on what was then heathland known as East Cote. The heath was cleared and the first race meeting was held in 1711. Seven sturdy English Hunters, all aged six years or older, competed for Her Majesty’s Plate over a distance of four miles. The name of the first winner is lost to time.

The meeting is now the richest in the British racing calendar, with prize money in excess of £5.5million. Thoroughbreds are drawn from around the world. The prize funds for last year’s Prince of Wales Stakes and Diamond Jubilee Stakes were each £525,000. A pot of £375,000 was available for the Queen Anne Stakes and the Gold Cup, a race with traditions dating to 1807.

Royal winners at Ascot

In 2013 jockey Ryan Moore rode home the filly, Estimate, to win the Gold Cup wearing the Queen’s colours. Her Majesty was visibly overjoyed by the 22nd Royal Ascot win of her reign, 60 years on from her first, when Choir Boy romped home in the 1953 Royal Hunt Cup. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, duly presented his mother with the winner’s trophy.

Racing fans associate the meeting with some of the sport’s great names. Those that stand out include Frankel, the horse which retired unbeaten, and Sir Henry Cecil, the man who trained a record 75 Royal Ascot winners.

Entering the Royal Enclosure

Yet for most people Royal Ascot is primarily a grand social occasion and entry to the Royal Enclosure, which is by invitation only, much coveted. The formal dress code within the Royal Enclosure is enforced by distinctively dressed stewards, renowned for their bowler hats.

Fashion commentators have a field day talking about the clothing and hats worn by female attendees, who are not permitted to bare their midriffs or to don strapless dresses. Gentlemen have a choice between grey or black morning suits with waistcoats and black shoes. If they wish to remain inside the Royal Enclosure they are not even permitted wear a coloured band or ribbon on their top hats. Military dress uniforms, however, are permitted and overseas visitors are welcome to attend in their national costumes.

Champagne and Canapé Receptions

Though there’s an aspect of exclusivity to Royal Ascot it’s also a highly popular event. 280,268 people were present over the five days in 2012, making it Britain’s best attended race meeting. A glance at the logistics of Royal Ascot reveal more about its scale. Over 6,000 members of staff were employed, including 2,400 cleaners who helped recycle 547 tonnes of waste. With more than 100 bars and food outlets, it required 39 kitchens and 330 chefs to produce the dishes consumed onsite. The meeting’s Champagne and canapé receptions are much celebrated. 2,050kg of lobster was consumed three years ago, along with 51,549 bottles of Champagne, 173,776 pints of beer and 44,524 glasses of Pimms.

As you’d expect for an event of such standing, dishes by some of Britain’s top chefs cooked during the meeting. Michael Caines, who holds two Michelin stars for his Gidleigh Park restaurant, will oversee the menus served this year in On 5, the fifth floor grandstand restaurant with views over the final two furlongs of the track. The two-starred chef of The Square, Phil Howard, will be serving British cuisine in the Panoramic restaurant, which overlooks the straight and the surrounding countryside; land that was enclosed by Act of Parliament, in 1813, to ensure it would be fit for racing.

Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot

As many eyes focus on the attire of female attendees they do on the track during Royal Ascot’s Thursday. It’s thought the informal term Ladies’ Day, as it’s known by the public, grew in popularity from 1823 when an anonymous poet penned poem with the line, ‘Ladies Day, when women, like angels, look sweetly divine.’

Anticipation is building regarding the dresses, hats and winners that will be seen at this year’s Royal Ascot meeting, which takes place between 16 and 20 June.

Further information

Find out more about the race course and Royal Ascot race meeting, including how to acquire tickets, on the Ascot website.

Learn more about nearby attractions in southern England on the Visit South-East England and Visit England websites.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Visit England / Doug Harding.