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.

The Church of St Mark, one of the landmarks in Zagreb, Croatia.

Reasons to visit Croatia in summer

The summer of 2015 will be Croatia’s 24th as an independent country and second as a member state of the European Union. The nation’s capital, Zagreb, is an attractive entry point to a land whose coast has been drawing foreign visitors since it was part of Yugoslavia and even long before.

Prior to the outbreak of World War One, in 1914, the resort town of Opatija, on the Adriatic coast, was regarded as one of Europe’s finest seaside destinations. Aristocrats and well-to-do members of the Austro-Hungarian society spent prolonged periods in fashionable Opatija, which was given special status as a climatic wellness resort. They would enjoy long perambulations on the Lungomare promenade, which even today affords fine views of Kvarner Bay, and more strenuous walks up to the summit of Mount Ucka, at 1,401 metres above sea level.

Opatija’s Croatian Museum of Tourism

Opatija retains many of the fine villas and grand hotels that helped elevate its reputation, especially from the 1860s onwards. One of the oldest buildings – Villa Angolina, built in 1844 as a summer residence for Iginio Scarpa, a wealthy merchant from the town of Rijeka – is regarded as the birthplace of tourism to the region. Today the villa houses the Croatian Museum of Tourism and conveys how royal visits and developments to the region’s transport infrastructure helped stimulate the take-off of tourism to the Adriatic.

Many people are surprised to learn that sunbathing and beach holidays are a relatively recent development. The Austro-Hungarian aristocrats preferred visiting over winter months, due to Opatija’s mild micro-climate. You don’t need a thermometer for evidence of that, a stroll through the Botanical Gardens will suffice. Exotic species from around the world thrive, including banana plants. Wellness treatments remain popular and a modern thalassotherapy centre stands within the centre of the town.

Pula and the Roman Empire

Elsewhere in Croatia bears evidence of a domination by an even older empire than that of Austro-Hungary. The Romans held sway over the region around 2,000 years ago and some of the best preserved examples of their influence can be seen in the city of Pula.

Much of Pula’s vast amphitheatre remains intact. The ancient entertainment venue was constructed from around 27BC to 68AD, with three tiers of stone arches rising around a central arena. Today you can see artefacts displayed beneath the ground, in subterranean chambers once used to house gladiators and other performers. A Roman temple, dedicated to Augustus, stands in the centre of the city, along with three of ancient gates.

The most spectacular is the Arch of the Sergii, a triumphal arch recording the exploits of three brothers during the Battle of Actium – a decisive naval engagement of 27BC in which the combined fleet of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra was defeated. Today the gate stands on a pedestrianised city shopping street between pastel coloured buildings.

Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheatre, constructed from 27BC to 68AD, Pula, Istria, Croatia

Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheatre, constructed from 27BC to 68AD, Pula, Istria, Croatia.

Dubrovnik and the Coast

Croatia also has coastal resorts providing a balance between urban centres rich in heritage and affordable, family-orientated beach holidays. One of the reasons why Dubrovnik has become such a popular hub for summer tourism is that it offers the combination of a UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval walled city with a historic harbour plus beaches renowned for crystal waters.

As a destination for a city break, Zagreb is a fine option. The heart of the thriving capital is attractive and sufficiently compact to explore easily on foot. Perhaps it’s the legacy of Austro-Hungarian rule and the region’s balmy Mediterranean-style climate that provides the city with an effusive café culture. You’re never going to run short of places to enjoy good, strong coffee and recharge between sightseeing. Petar Preradović Square, named after a 19th century poet but known locally as ‘Flower Square’ because of the colourful florists stalls, and Tkalčićeva, a street running between the upper and lower towns, are two of the most popular places to unwind and people watch.

Things to do in Zagreb

The upper town is rich in history and a rewarding place to wander with a camera. St Mark’s Square is the site of Croatia’s national parliament and named after a 13th century church with a colourfully tiled roof, depicting the coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia. On warm afternoons the wooden benches on the tree-lined Strossmayer Promenade provide both shade and views over the lower town.

Lotrščak, a stone tower dating from the Middle Ages, overlooks that walkway and if you’re nearby at noon be prepared for the boom of the gun fired from it daily and once used by residents to set their clocks.

Shopping in Central Zagreb

A funicular runs between the upper and lower town. At just 66 metres in length it revels in its reputation of being one of the shortest in the world; journeys last a mere but memorable 55 seconds. At its foot runs Ilica, the bustling street that locals know as Zagreb’s main artery. On it you’ll find the ornate Oktagon shopping arcade, a late 19th century construction with glass ceiling and a number of upscale boutiques.

Carry on for another couple of minutes and you’ll reach Ban Jelačić Square, named after the sword-wielding general, Josip Jelačić, whose equine statue sits at its centre. This is the heart of the city and it’s common for Zagreb’s residents to arrange to meet with friends “under the horse’s tail” so don’t be surprised to see people milling around behind the hero who abolished serfdom. From 18 April don’t be you may also see people dressed in historic costumes, singing songs and recreating ladies’ markets, known as Kumice, of bygone days.

Visit on a weekend and you can also see people in national costume manning a number of the stalls at Dolac market, just off the square. It’s another good spot for photography and picking up regional products for a picnic in one of the Zagreb’s parks or as souvenirs of a visit to Croatia.

Summer is a fine time of year to explore the history-rich cities, coastal resorts and rolling countryside of Croatia.

Further Information

Find ideas for travel in Croatia via the Croatian National Tourist Board website.

Getting there

Stuart flew from Newcastle to Zagreb, via Amsterdam, with KLM. Jet2 and Thomson both fly between Newcastle and Dubrovnik.

Also worth visiting - St Euphemia Cathedral rises above the Old Town and fishing port of Rovinj, Istria, Croatia

Also worth visiting – St Euphemia Cathedral rises above the Old Town and fishing port of Rovinj, Istria, Croatia.

The bar at St Mary's Inn in Northumberland.

St Mary’s Inn – A B&B and foodie pub in Northumberland

St Mary’s Inn opened for business on 1 November 2014 in the former administrative building of St Mary’s Hospital, a couple of miles from Morpeth in Northumberland. In its heyday up to 2,000 patients were treated at the hospital, an asylum that closed in 1996.

You might be tempted to say that any reviewer of this smart bed and breakfast plus gastropub would be mad to pass up an opportunity to pun on the site’s former use?

I visited St Mary’s in May 2015 and was impressed by the food served in the restaurant on the ground floor of a renovated and extended neo-Gothic building. The emphasis is on modern British cuisine made with quality, locally sourced ingredients. Portions are generous and the presentation is good without being pretentious. You can plump for pub grub including pie and mash, fish and chips, as well as grilled meats.

A Modern British Gastropub

After sharing a portion of potted pork with a delicious tarragon undertone, served alongside pickles and sourdough toast, I looked to the chalkboard specials for my main course. The seared Northumbrian lamb that I ordered was beautifully presented – served with green beans, samphire and gravy – and exquisitely tender. If it’s indicative of the quality of the roast meats served on Sundays then St Mary’s will prove worth stopping by for its three course lunch, costing £21.50.

Impressed by the savoury courses I couldn’t resist the temptation to order and share a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream. If you’re looking for a laid-back place to enjoy a selection of British dishes and savour an impression of local produce then its worthwhile booking a table St Mary’s Inn.

Staying at the inn gave me an opportunity to sample a couple of the hand-pulled craft beers served at the bar, which stocks more than 40 whiskies and serves around 15 different wines by the glass at any given time. Wylam Brewery, based in the Tyne Valley, bottles St Mary’s Ale for the inn. However, I was drawn to beers from the Anarchy Brew Co, Allendale Brewery and Mordue Brewery – all of which are based in Northumberland and Durham.

The former office building has been converted into a smart, multi-room pub with seven log fires. The parquet flooring and heavy wooden tables give the impression this place has a pedigree beyond the autumn of 2014. On the walls you’ll see framed cartoons, drawn for the pub by David Haldane, whose work appears in the Sunday Times, as well as original paintings by Norman Cornish, depicting the daily life of coalminers. Wire sculptures by Gary Tiplady stand by fireplaces, faithfully depicting the stance of dogs, which, by the way, are welcome in the pub.

St Mary’s Inn is a good addition to the gastronomy scene in north-east England and a cosy base if you’re visiting from further afield.

Roast lamb with vegetables served at St Mary's Inn in Northumberland.

Roast lamb with vegetables served at St Mary’s Inn in Northumberland.

Rooms at the Inn

St Mary’s Inn has 11 sizable guestrooms. Three are categorised as standard and eight as deluxe. All are located on the first floor of the building, which is wheelchair accessible and welcomes dogs in one of the bedrooms.

Kick off your shoes and socks and enjoy the soft feel of the long carpet under your feet as you brew a tea or coffee in the room. Kettles, packets of biscuits and bottled mineral water are provided. You can relax in one of the room’s armchairs with your drink or, if it’s sunny, take it out onto the rooftop courtyard.

The beds, with wrought iron bedsteads, are high yet remarkably comfy. I had a great night’s sleep tucked under the heavy duvet.

My room was modern but decorated with a vintage dresser, chest-of-drawers and wardrobe. The wall opposite the bed held a flat-screen television and seven stylised fish mosaics created by Craster-based artist Julie Smith.

Light, fortunately, was the only thing that flooded the bathroom on the morning – pouring in through the skylight. With grey stonework, a shaving mirror, Villeroy and Boch porcelain and shining Grohe fittings, the room, which had both a bath and rainfall shower had a pleasant, contemporary look. Bottles of Arran Aromatics toiletries were ranged in a wooden box with white facecloths close to a pleasantly scented bergamot and geranium reed diffuser.

Breakfast at St Mary’s

Breakfast is served (from 8.00am to 10.00am on weekdays and until 10.30am on weekends) in an airy, high room with white brickwork and wood ceiling beams. Modern artwork and photos of locally produced foodstuffs adorn the walls.

A buffet is laid out on a table next to the fireplace, on which vintage port boxes and brasses are displayed. You can help yourself to pastries, freshly pressed orange and grapefruit juice, boxed cereals and mineral water. Chopped fruit, cheeses plus ingredients to mix your own muesli are also present.

The inn’s staff serve coffee and tea and take orders for warm dishes, including Craster kippers and a traditional English fry up served with locally made sausages and black pudding. The avocado served on sourdough toast with a poached egg comes highly recommended by the affable manager of St Mary’s Inn, Victor Castro.

A Weekend in Northumberland

Staying at St Mary’s Inn places you a five minute drive from Whitehouse Farm Centre (01670 789998; whitehousefarmcentre.co.uk; £9.50 for peak-time adult entry). The 40-acre, family-run farm houses farm animals plus a number of more exotic creatures, including owls, lizards and snakes. It’s aimed at kids but can be fun for inquisitive adults too. Children have opportunities to take tractor rides, race cars indoors, spend time in the soft play den and play outside. You’ll have the chance to feed goats and lambs (if you head here in spring), pet the animals and, if you’re feeling up to it, can even hold a tarantula. Chatting to the centre’s staff also provides insights into sheep farming on Northumberland’s hills.

The inn is located a couple of miles from Morpeth, Northumberland’s county town, where you can shop for provisions for walking and cycling tours or while away time in the smattering cafes and pubs. The chantry building, dating from 1552 and formerly used as a school, hosts the Northumbrian Craft Centre and Morpeth Bagpipe Museum (0773 6865824; morpethbagpipemuseum.org.uk; 9.30am to 5.00pm Monday to Saturday; free to enter). Take a stroll in the town’s Carlisle Park, which holds tennis courts, crown bowling greens and has boats for hire, enabling you to go rowing on the River Wansbeck. The park has a herb garden where you can gain insights into medicinal treatments during medieval times.

If you fancy dining in town then it’s worth knowing that the Morpeth Tandoori (01670 517180; morpethtandoori.co.uk) comes highly recommended by locals. The restaurant, located opposite the Chantry, serves cuisine that it terms as ‘Bengol’ plus a range of Balti style dishes.

Northumberland is peppered with castles dating from the Middle Ages, during which the border region saw intermittent raiding and invasions from Scotland. The county has some of the United Kingdom’s most scenic countryside and draws many visitors to the Roman forts and visitor centres along Hadrian’s Wall. Find out more at Morpeth Tourist Information Centre (01670 623455; visitnorthumberland.com) within the Chantry building.

If you enjoy cycling then ask Victor for details of the 20km and 40km circular routes that start and end at St Mary’s Inn. A group of cyclists departs for rides on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and welcomes guest riders.

Finding St Mary’s Inn

St Mary’s Inn is at St Mary’s Lane on St Mary’s Park at Morpeth, Northumberland, NE61 6BL (01670 293293; stmarysinn.co.uk). Rooms cost between £80 and £140 per night, including breakfast.

Double bed with a wrought iron frame at St Mary's Inn,  in  Northumberland.

Double bed with a wrought iron frame at St Mary’s Inn, in Northumberland.

Londonaise International Pétanque Festival in London, England.

Londonaise International Pétanque Festival

The sport of pétanque – or boules – reminds me of childhood holidays on France’s Côte d’Azur. Yet the game is coming to the United Kingdom. From 5 to 7 June 2015 some of the world’s leading players will be playing in London at the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.

I used to watch games, played with metal boules, unfolding on gravel strips in parks and under trees on public squares. The convivial matches always seemed to have an air of informality and be accompanied by conversation, laughter and an aromatic blend of French tobacco. Fascinated, I’d watch players standing with their feet together – concentrating on the cochonnet (the jack) – before wristily looping a boule into the group of metallic spheres already in play. I was so impressed I invested some of my holiday money in a boldly coloured plastic set so that I could play (and beat) my brother.

Playing Pétanque in London

The Londonaise, thankfully, is not just for experienced players. My boules have not been out of the garden shed for several years now, so I don’t foresee myself challenging for any of the £5,000 prize fund.

“It’s for people to say, ‘you know what, let’s play petanque, let’s play boules,'” says Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the event, as we chat in Angelus, his London restaurant and lounge.

“All you need to do is buy a set of boules and you can play anywhere. When the weather is nice you can apply a little bit of technique and enjoy a game. That’s what pétanque is about – being together,” he says with a Gallic shrug.

International Cash Prize Boules

“This year is the second time we’re doing this. The most important day is the Sunday, with £5,000 in cash prizes. We’ve got four world champions confirmed as coming to play,” he adds.

The competition will involve 128 teams with three players. Teams doing well in the Sunday morning qualification stage will have a chance to compete for prize money. The remainder will play-off in a wooden spoon event.

Mercury Phoenix Trust Fundraising

“On the Friday we’re doing a special event for the Mercury Phoenix Trust in order to raise money for AIDS. That’s an invitation-only, celebrity event and we’ll have an auction of a Brian May guitar,” says Thierry, who is a native of Toulouse and a passionate pétanque player.

“People are coming from all over the world to play in the Londonaise. We’ve got a team from Estonia, two teams from Sweden, one each from Spain and Lithuania, two from France and the British champion. It’s serious, in a way, but still fun. The Sunday is going to be serious, because you’re playing for money. But the Saturday is far more relaxed – you can come with your family from 1pm for a 2pm start. Get some fresh air, bring the kids, enjoy! It’s in Barnard Park, seven minutes from St Pancras and the Eurostar,” says Thierry with enthusiasm.

Barnard Park, I learn, has a playing area the size of two football pitches and is surrounded by a grassy bank, trees and benches.

The Rules of Pétanque

I ask Thierry for a quick recap on the rules of pétanque and he’s happy to oblige.

“You can play one person against one, a team of two against two, or triplets. The first team to arrive at 13 points wins the game. So of course there’s a lot of tactics and skill,” he explains.

My face must cloud with concern when I hear those words.

“You don’t need to say ‘I won’t come to the Londonaise because people will be playing much better than me,'” says Thierry, to put me at ease. “The aim of the Londonaise is that people who know how to play pétanque will show you. That’s also the meaning of the Londonaise – sharing pleasure all together…even if you don’t have boules we have some and you can borrow some,” says Thierry.

Before the Londonaise gets underway I’ll be digging out my long forgotten plastic set for a spot of practice.

Further information

See the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival website for more details about the event, including how to register and participate. Stalls in Barnard Park will sell French food and drink during the festival.

The event will be raising funds for The Mercury Phoenix Trust to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. The charity was founded in memory of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who died from AIDS in 1991.

Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.

Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.

An Expo Gate pavilion, built for Expo Milano 2015, in Milan, Italy.

Expo Milano 2015: Milan’s universal exposition

The Italian city of Milan is anticipating around 20 million visitors from 1 May to 31 October 2015, the period during which it will be hosting Expo Milano 2015 this year’s universal exposition.

The Expo site is spread over an area of 1.1 million square metres in Rho, a suburb north-west of Milan’s city centre. By public transport the journey between the two will take you around 35 minutes.

Up to 250,000 visitors are allowed onto the Expo site each day. Most guests are drawn by the prospect of browsing pavilions with state-of-the-art exhibitions – relating to the Expo Milano 2015’s theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. An Expo record of 53 participating nations have erected their own pavilions this year while the remainder of the 148 participating countries and international organisations are exhibiting within food- and climate-themed clusters.

Cirque du Soleil at the Expo

For some people the show Allavita!, created by Cirque du Soleil, is the key reason to visit the Expo. Performances of Allavita! will take place nightly, from 15 May to 30 August, at the site’s open air theatre.

This year’s theme will bring together food producers, consumers, academics and representatives from businesses to participate in debates and workshops. Organisers hope that Expo Milano 2015 will contribute solutions to issues relating to sustainable development plus some of the world’s nutrition and food supply problems.

Experts estimate that, at present, 870 million of the world’s 7.3 billion people are starving while excessive food consumption leads to 2.8 million deaths each year. At current rates the global population will rise to nine billion by 2050, meaning there’s a pressing need to find solutions to food and water shortages.

Attending Expo Milano 2015

You can buy open tickets or tickets valid only for set dates. Season tickets are also available. To purchase tickets visit the Expo Milano 2015 website.  The site is also a source of Expo-related news and lists daily events.

Only one of the Expo’s five thematic areas is located within Milan’s city centre. La Triennale – with an exhibition area of 7,000 square metres – is hosting Arts and Foods: Rituals since 1851, featuring paintings, sculptures plus a mixture of other media. The exhibition explores changes in the depiction of food and dining experiences since the inaugural World’s Fair, held in London during 1851.

Expo in the City

The City of Milan and the Milan Chamber of Commerce are cooperating to organise Expo in the City. Around 7,000 events are also being planned away from the Expo site.

See the Expo in the City website for a full listing of events, including art exhibitions, concerts, sporting events plus street entertainment and scientific conferences. The venues include historic palaces, museums and parks around Milan.

Reasons to Visit Milan

Milan, of course, is known throughout the world as fashion and design hub. Creative and industrious, the metropolitan area contributes around 10 per cent of Italy’s Gross Domestic Product. To window shop in stores showcasing the latest offerings from Milanese fashion houses, take a walk in the Montenapoleone district.

You can also browse shops in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the glass-roofed, 19th century shopping arcade, housing flagship stores of some of the biggest names in world fashion. The arcade underwent major renovations ahead of the Expo.

From there you can stroll to the nearby cathedral, the Duomo, is renowned for having one of the world’s most ornate Gothic facades. Building started in 1387 but, remarkably, was not completed until 1965. From the rooftop you can enjoy evocative panoramas of the heart of Milan, including views onto the Piazzo del Duomo (Cathedral Square) and Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace).

Some people see the San Siro stadium as a cathedral of sorts. Both of Milan’s most successful football teams play their home games at the ground, which has more than 79,000 seats plus a museum recounting the histories of A.C. Milan and F.C. Internazionale.

If you enjoy art and literature then add a visit to the Ambrosiana Art Gallery and Library to your itinerary. The Ambrosiana houses the Codex Atlanticus, twelve volumes binding more than 1,000 leaves with sketches and writings produced by Leonardo da Vinci between 1478 and 1519. Head to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see his mural The Last Supper.

Seared swordfish served at Larte restaurant in Milan, Italy.

Seared swordfish served at Larte restaurant in Milan, Italy.

Where to eat

If you enjoy dining in stylish, modern café-restaurants then book a table at Larte (Via Manzoni 5; tel. +39 (0)2 89096950; closed Sundays) which opened to the public in October 2014. With art displayed on exposed concrete walls, designer seats and Mediterranean cuisine inspired by Capri’s Michelin-starred Il Riccio Restaurant, Larte is conceptualised as a meeting place of the best of all things Italian, including design and fashion.

Chef Gennaro Immobile and his team prepare their tasty, simple but beautifully presented dishes in a kitchen that’s open – save for a mesh screen – meaning you can watch the team at work. Every month Larte hosts an up-and-coming guest chef for one week, providing a showcase for their talent plus culinary product supplied by farmers and producers from their local region.

I’d return to lunch at Larte after lunching on mezzi paccheri pasta with aubergine, vine tomatoes and provolone cheese served with fresh basil followed by a swordfish medallion with a vegetable caponata and rocket pesto.

Where to sleep

Stuart stayed at the 4-star Starhotels Ritz Milan (Via Spallanzani 40; tel. +39 (0)2 2551). The hotel has 197 rooms and suites plus a bar and restaurant. A breakfast buffet is laid out each morning.

Getting there

Stuart flew from Newcastle to Milan Linate airways with British Airways.

Etihad Airways is the official global airline carrier of Expo Milano 2015.

By rail the journey from London via Paris Milan’s Rho Fiera Milano railway station takes 11 hours 15 minutes.

Further information

View the Expo Milano 2015 website or download the free app for use on mobile devices. The Expo site is open daily, from 10am to 11pm, until 31 October 2015. If you’re in Milan you can also head to the Expo Gate information centre, close to site of the 1906 Expo and a couple of minutes stroll from the Castello Sforzesco, the fortress built in the 15th century for Milan’s ruling family.

Explora is the official tourism board of Expo Milano 2015. Explora provides information relating to Milan and other destinations in the Lombardy, including suggestions relating to experiences in the region. These include food and wine tastings plus golf and wellness breaks. Explora’s website allows you search for accommodation by type – from camp sites to luxury villas – and according to the distance you’d like to stay from the Expo site.

The Italian Tourism Office’s website has ideas for travel in Italy.

Facade of the Gothic cathedral (Duomo) in Milan, Italy.

Facade of the Gothic cathedral (Duomo) in Milan, Italy.

Half-timbered buildings in Bad Langensalza.

Travel and tourism in Thuringia, Germany

The 2015 Germany Travel Mart, held in Thuringia, proved an opportunity to learn about the travel and tourism opportunities in the state, which for over a century has been known as ‘the green heart of Germany.’

“We claim that in no other state state is the connection between the urban and natural attractions so close,” said Bärbel Gröngeres, the Managing Director of Thüringer Tourismus GmbH, during the GTM press conference.

During 2014 9,924,524 overnight stays were recorded in the state, up three per cent on the previous year. Like Germany as a whole, the Netherlands provides the mainstay of international visitors to Thuringia, which 10,964 Americans and 9,230 Britons visited in 2014.

International delegates, exhibitors and travel journalists attending the GTM stayed in Erfurt and Weimar and had opportunities to visit sites of interest around Thuringia, which actively promotes barrier-free travel. Even the canopy walkway in Hainich National Park is wheelchair accessible.

To find out more about Thuringia I interviewed Dorothea Schäffler (DS), the person responsible for the marketing and sales of Thüringer Tourismus GmbH:

25 years on since the re-unification of Germany, what’s been the story of tourism here in Thuringia?

DS: To a large extent I can only talk about what I’ve heard because when the wall came down I was a teenager in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and tourism was regulated by the state. We did not have the opportunity to travel a lot and, on the other hand, it was difficult for certain countries to visit us, of course.

For 25 years now we have all been able to travel freely and we have been able to receive visitors from all over the world – this is a very big change. After the wall came down many West Germans came over because they were curious and wanted to discover East Germany.

Ever since, we have been experiencing rising numbers of tourists. Thuringia has doubled the number of visitors in the past 25 years and the percentage of foreign visitors is growing, though it’s still outnumbered by the number of German visitors. We have 93 per cent of visitors from Germany and seven per cent from abroad, but this is gradually changing. We’re hoping the GTM will contribute to this development.

In terms of getting visitors from abroad, especially those from English speaking countries, what do you think are the main challenges facing eastern Germany and, in particular, Thuringia?

DS: There are several challenges of course. First of all, you have to make yourself known. Many destinations were not known in English speaking countries because we did not have the chance to promote ourselves like the West German part did. Everybody knows Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt – we’re still catching up with them. We still have a lot of work to do to explain who we are, where we are and what we have to offer.

It’s very important for those countries that we can offer English speaking guides, service personnel, English language menus and English guided tours.

You also need good transport connections, be it flights, train connections or well developed roads. That’s very important for attracting people from foreign countries.

Half-timbered houses on the Krämerbrücke in Erfurt.

Half-timbered houses on the Krämerbrücke in Erfurt.

You have a direct Germania flight from London Gatwick to Erfurt-Weimar Airport. Is that going to continue?

DS: Yes, as far as we know it is going to continue until at least 2016. This is what we heard.

We hope it will work out that we continue to get many more visitors from the UK. It really shows us how important a direct connection is. It makes travelling much more convenient. It encourages people to hop on a plane and come to Erfurt rather than changing in Frankfurt and then taking the train.

Erfurt has a connection with Martin Luther. Weimar has connections with the likes of Goethe, Schiller and a number of classical musicians. Those characters don’t necessarily speak out to young people in English speaking countries, despite the great stories associated with them. German speaking people know how much they have influenced the culture of the German speaking part of Europe. What can be done to get beyond that and get people to experience the culture of this part of Germany?

DS: It’s true we have a lot of history and interesting personalities and that attracts many guests – to a large extent they are 40 or 50 plus. We also have an increasing number of offers for young people and families, starting from hotels, activities in nature, sports and events.

We have a large network of really nice youth hostels that are creative and developing offers for young people.

We say if you come here you experience the ‘real Germany’ and get good value for money.

You say Thuringia offers good value for money. Can you give a couple of examples?

DS: It starts with the accommodation prices. Also if you go out eating you’ll notice a difference.

What would you suggest as five must-see attractions in Thuringia?

DS: I would say Erfurt, our state capital, it’s a beautiful medieval city with a lot of half-timbered houses, narrow lanes and cobbled streets. It has wonderful cafes and beer gardens, and a great atmosphere, especially in the summer.

Weimar, our cultural capital, has 16 places associated with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I think it’s a city that slows you down somehow. I find Weimar very relaxing.

I like Wartburg Castle very much. It’s my favourite place in Thuringia. It’s such a fantastic castle and has an interesting history and a great location.

Hainich National Park is fascinating because it’s one of the last primeval beech forests in Europe. You could not access it during GDR times because it was a military area. It also has a nice treetop canopy trail with wonderful views.

And number five? I like the Eichsfeld region in the north-west of the state, near the border with Hesse and Lower Saxony. It has rolling hills and a lot of forest. It has traditional villages and wonderful products, like sausage and cheese. You can go hiking and cycling there, visit spas where you can relax or go to border museums.

What should people eat for a taste of proper Thuringian food?

DS: If you’re not a vegetarian you should definitely try Thuringian sausage. The recipe was written down more than 600 years ago, so it’s very traditional and you can get it basically on every street corner. It’s tasty and not as fatty as many other types of sausage!

If you have a sweet tooth you should try Thuringian cakes. The traditional way is to bake many cakes on trays and slice them into small pieces, so you can try a lot of them.

Is there anything else people should know about Thuringia?

DS: What we notice, once people come here, is they are surprised by how beautiful it is, how friendly people are, and how much there is to do and see here. That’s a nice effect for us.

For further information about the state see the Thuringia and Germany websites.

The Bauhaus University in Weimar.

The Bauhaus University in Weimar.