The Palio, Siena, and Horse Deaths

The famous Siena Palio is under attack from politicians and animal activists who feel that too many horses are dying on the streets of ancient towns as horse racing in Italian streets continues to attract crowds.

Scene of the Palio, Piazza del Campo

The famous Palio in Siena which is staged on July 2nd and August 16th each year in the beautiful medieval Piazza del Campo has been pitting jockeys from different neighbourhoods against one another, since the middle of the 17th century.  Amid pageantry and crowds dressed up for the occasion, horses ridden by ten colourfully dressed bareback jockeys, earlier chosen from Siena’s 17 quarters, gallop three times in two minutes around the Piazza del Campo, during which they lash both their rivals and their horses with whips made from bull penises.

Spectacle without the Horse Racing at Siena’s Palio

For those who want to avoid the actual horse racing but who would like to see a little of the pageantry, go to Siena a few weeks before.  During the lead-up to the main event, and especially at the weekends, the neighbourhood support groups march through the streets and alleys of the town, narrowly avoiding confrontations with each other through luck more than route savvy.  These groups are magnificently dressed in medieval costumes as they strut through the town, accompanied by their bands and sundry followers.  The core group can be composed of the very elderly to the very young, all staunch members of one particular group, although I never saw any women marching.

If by chance two groups should meet, an exchange of insults is par for the course with the occasional brandishing of swords.  Worse for the onlooker is the discordance of two bands playing different local anthems!

Siena in Tuscany, near Florence and Pisa

There is accommodation around the square with balconies from which to view the racing, or there is seating on certain balconies rented out for those willing to pay a premium, but this needs to be booked up early.

Siena is a magnificent town, it rivals Florence in many ways, and is easily reached by train or coach from Pisa to which most of the airlines fly these days.  It is also within easy reach of Florence and could be the centre of a Tuscany touring holiday giving you access to a wealth of medieval hillside towns as well as the better known artistic centres.  And when in the area, do visit the magnificent little hamlet of Civita di Bagnoregio just a few miles away.  It has a population of only ten people as it was dying at one point but efforts are being made to restore the glorious medieval properties some dating from the Etruscan period.

I shall be returning this year, not for the Palio, but to enjoy the Piazza del Campo where it seems all Italian life is lived, to revel in the beauty of the town, and to eat some truly fabulous food.

Siena Tourist Office

Bangkok – City of Angels

Orchids on display in  one of Bangkok’s markets

The City of Angels is one translation of the name Bangkok, but the reputation it has in the world today has more to do with sinners methinks.  Do not let this deter anyone from visiting this fabulous city, chock full of amazing sites from the red lacquer and gold leafed temples to the famed River of Kings, the Chao Phraya, that meanders through the city.


Add to those the Grand Palace, actually a complex of beautiful buildings, temples, wall murals, and temples:  Wat Arun the famous Temple of Dawn; Chinatown alive with noise and bustle day and night, the best shopping in Asia without a doubt, and great food, roof top bars with the Wow! factor, and the Skytrain to get you from one place to the other in comfort, and you can understand why Thailand is a top destination today.

P1030873I returned from Bangkok just a few weeks ago laden with trinkets, silks and wood carvings as usual.  My regular visits do not mean that I don’t shop as avidly as I always did.  If anything, the growth of the fashion industry in Thailand and the increase in skilled staff in the carving and gem departments, makes it more difficult to resist.


I still visit the Grand Palace to wonder at the magnificence, and Chinatown at night for fun eating and bargains as well as other favourite haunts.  And I always stroll through the infamous Patpong just to see how it expands and still welcomes families as well as single males and females.  It’s not generally known but all visitors are welcome there, and safe.  Watch this space for an article on the streets known as Patpong I and Patpong II, and the other area where the sex trade is practised openly, Soi Cowboy.

Hua Hin – Thailand’s Royal Town

People often ask what is my favourite town or city in Thailand.  The answer is easy, it is Hua Hin, a once quiet fishing village on the Gulf of Siam, two hours drive from Bangkok, and a world away from the bustle and noise of the capital city.  Mind you, Bangkok is up there with the favourites as well, but it is the capital city after all, and all capital cities are deserving of their popularity.

I have been visiting Hua Hin for about 25 years now, stopping off on every holiday to recharge my batteries in the peace and tranquillity of one of the hotels just outside the town.  For the last twenty years, that hotel has been the Dusit Thani Hua Hin, a 5-star establishment that attracts guests from far and wide, but it also pleases the Thai people because come the week-end, they flock to it for the great food (especially the Saturday night barbecue), the delightful seaside setting, and the chance to go horse-riding at dawn on the beach (the only hotel at which this is available).

Today’s Hua Hin owes much of its popularity to the fact that many people discovered it only after the tsunami that devastated the southern beaches of Phi Phi, Phuket, Kao Lak etc.  Before the tsunami it could be said that the fishing village atmosphere was very evident, but today, the little fishing harbour is being crowded by the shops, restaurants, and tailors that line the roads leading to the sea.

Most of the major hotel chains have a presence here – Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Aleena, Sofitel, and of course, the already mentioned, Dusit Thani.  I choose The Dusit Thani because it is a purely Thai owned hotel with service and attention to detail that reflects the Thai ideal of hospitality.  All these hotels have excellent restaurants but Hua Hin itself must be one of the best towns in which to find food from every nation.  As well as Thai restaurants, of which there are many, there are Chinese, French, German, Indian, Italian, Korean, Swiss, Japanese, Vietnamese, American and European/Mediterranean fusion.

With the growth of a well-heeled retirement colony in the town, bakeries have sprung up as well as cheese and meat importers.  Fresh vegetables can be purchased daily at the local market, or there is a Tesco/Lotus supermarket for those who feel the need for packaged veggies and air-conditioned stores.

Hua Hin is one of the most popular spots to which people want to retire as the climate is never too hot or too humid, unlike say Phuket or the islands in the south.  It is also within easy reach of Bangkok, there is a good transport network, and, there are six championship golf courses in the area.

Asian Travels – Mari Nicholson

I have decided to split my travel blogging into two separate areas, one for my forays into East Asia, an area of the world in which I travel extensively, and one for Europe.  I hope it will be easy for the readers to navigate between the two, and I hope I manage to leave links where necessary.

I have decided to call this one Asian travels, and the one for my European excursions I propose calling, surprise surprise, European Travels.

This year I have spent quite a bit of time in Thailand, my all-time favourite country, during which I managed to visit Koh Samui – just avoiding the flooding which hit the island shortly after I left – and I spent some time in Hua Hin, the Thai Royals’ favourite resort on the Gulf.  I also spent time in Khao Sok National Park and in Khao Yai National Park, two quite different areas of forest land, one to the North of Bangkok and one way down South, near Krabi, Phuket, and Surat Thani.

I hope you’ll check in occasionally to read my articles, maybe to ask me some questions, or leave a comment.  This is just ‘Hello’ for today.  First blog coming up soon.

Back from Rioja and Catching Up.

Been a long, been a long, been a long time.  Anyone remember those words from the old song?

I’ve been busy over the last few months trying to work for a living and juggle social life which has made me neglect my blog.  I blame my computer really, as the many ways it distracts me from doing essential jobs are too numerous to mention.  Especially when it comes to playing with photographs, resizing, cropping, changing aspects, etc.  My biggest problem is not being able to resist trying them in different styles – just for my own amusement, of course – and I can waste a good few hours doing this.  But hey ho! here I am again.


Bar in Logroño, capital of Rioja Region

Since I last blogged I’ve been to the Rioja Wine Festival in Spain where the celebrations were absolutely fabulous.  Tapas in the bars from 7 in the evening until well into the early hours of the morning, drinking some fabulous wines that I’d never tried before and when it wasn’t a tapas evening, sampling superb food in great restaurants, two of which stand out particularly.

Rich, Red, Rioja

1.   Restaurant La Venta Moncalvillo, a country restaurant about 12 miles outside Longroño. Since opening in 1997 this restaurant has grown from a modest little place to one of the most important restaurants in the region.  The two owners, brothers Carlos and Ignacio Echapresto do everything between them from the wine buying to the organization of the seasonal menus. A dish of wild mushroom sliced so thinly as to be almost transparent and served with the best olive oil and a sprinkling of chives makes a perfect starter, especially when followed by Ham Ibérico liced just so wrapped round the white asparagus that Spain specialises in.

Display of Coloured Corks at Taberna Herrerias, Logroño

2.   Taberna Herrerias, Logroño
In the old area of Logroño stands the Taberna Herrerias (a name that means Blacksmiths Tavern),on the street of the same name.  It is a 16th century palace sympathetically renovated without losing any of its ancient charm and now a restaurant serving delicious fresh, locally produced food,. The wines come from all over the world, but naturally, the locally produced Rioja is very much to the fore, especially the top quality Riojas that are sometimes difficult to source.

Logroño, Rioja’s capital, is an amazing city and one I hadn’t previously visited.  Accessible from the port of Bilbao which we arrived at and from where we hired car, we reached Logroño in just over two hours easy driving.  I met some people who had flown there, via Madrid, which they described as an easy trip.

Balloon over Vineyards of Rioja
Of the many experiences in and around Rioja, I treasure most the early morning balloon flight over the vineyards, flying up and into the clouds and watching the morning sun come up and cast the balloon’s shadow on the same white clouds.  Looking down on the toy cars and the dolls’ houses and experiencing the eerie silence as we drifted in space sharing a breakfast glass of champagne, was something I shall remember for the rest of my life.  I’ve done other balloon flights, but this one I can only describe as magical.
Museum of Vineculture

A visit to what must be one of the best Museums ever, the Dinastía Vivanco Bodegas Museo del Vino set in the heart of the wine area of Alberite in La Rioja, should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Rioja.  Located right next to the Vivanco winery from which it takes its name, in the town of Briones, it was built to “give back to wine what wine has given to us” in the words of its founder Pedro Vivanco Paracuellos. It was Senor Vivanco’s passion for collecting everything to do with wine that led him to open this magnificent museum, created to showcase every aspect of his collection.

Overlooking vineyards and the town of Briones, the Museum covers everything from ancient wine making to wine tasting guiding the visitor through ceramics, brass utensils and even a “smell experience” where the smells associated with wines can be experimented with.  Truly the most enjoyable museum I have ever visited.

There were wine tastings, trips to a thermal spa, horse riding, visiting an old monastery, and always, eating.  As a week-end trip, or a short break, this undiscovered town has everything, plus some of the best wines you will ever sample.

I think of Longroño now, as one of the places I must return to a.s.a.p.

Weekend in Lewes, Sussex

Just back from Lewes in Sussex, where Thomas Paine, the famous radical propagandist and voice of the common man, served as an excise officer from around 1768.   His most important work was The Rights of Man, a book in which he urged political rights and equality for all men, calling for legislation to help change the shocking conditions of the late 18th century poor in England.  Paine was influential in the American war of Independence and the French Revolution.

Considering the man’s importance I was surprised to find little to connect this giant revolutionary figure with Lewes, although I did buy an exquisite print of part of a pamphlet from Peter Chasseaud at The Market Tower, Lewes (The Tom Paine Printing Press), on hand-made paper.  Harvey’s, the local brewery, whose well-stocked shop is always busy, sells a tee-shirt on which  Tom Paine’s image is printed, but this is to sell its beer, not to honour the man.

Maybe Lewes, the perfect conservative market town, has little taste for revolutionaries?

That aside, the town is delightful and easily accessible, with cobbled streets leading up to the castle from which the views over the surrounding area are breathtaking.  Shopping is decidedly upmarket, whether for clothing or jewellry, but there are the usual supermarkets and department stores in the main part of town for more budget conscious buyers.

Nearby Brighton is, as ever, a great city in which to spend a few hours, and I spent nearly 3 at the exhibition on The Land Girls from both world wars at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, always a pleasant place in which to browse the changing exhibitions and display rooms.  The icing on the cake is the excellent cafe alongside and a shop selling the most tempting array of gifts I’ve ever seen.  Definitely my No. 1 Museum Gift shop.

The Land Girls exhibition highlights personal stories, propaganda, paintings, posters and photographs, revealing women’s experiences as they left home to live on farms and learn milking, rat catching and tractor driving, to help the war effort.  A fascinating glimpse into a world many people know little about.

The Brighton Film Festival is running until 6th December and I managed to catch up with some films I’d missed as well as viewing the more recent arrivals.

And then came the rain – but this is England in December, so what can we expect?  Brighton still put on its sunniest smiles and welcomed visitors despite the downpours.  It says a lot for this busy, energetic city, often called London by Sea, that the restaurants and cafes were packing them in and the people in the streets seemed stoic in the face of the torrential downpour.


Spanish Travels – Navarra and Galicia

When I first started this blog, I had intended to post weekly, but somehow work caught up with me and I had to postpone much that I wanted to do. I confess also that I’ve been enjoying the lovely weather, spending time in the garden pretending to be caring for the flowers and vegetables, but really, just pottering. Vigo, Spain

In between times I’ve been travelling in Spain for work, writing about the wondereful Province of Navarre which is seldom visited by tourists and that of Galicia. With regard to Navarre, tourists do visit but most of them are walkers because the area’s hills and mountains, rustic hotels and great food and wine (and the secret – cider) make it very worthwhile.
Part of the famous Route of St. James to Campostela de Santiago passes through Navarre and it was humbling to walk just a few kilometres along the road that sees pilgrims walk 15-20 miles per day for up to 30 days. Next year is the big celebration of the walk and Santiago is gearing up for a massive influx of tourists. I’m toying with the idea of doing part of the walk but I fear I may not have the stamina.

Galicia was a great contrast to Navarre. Spain’s northern coastal area is visited mainly by the Spanish happy to leave the southern Costas to the rest of Europe. I would hate to spoil it for them but I have to say that I plan to go back as it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Spain, unspoiled by high-rises and bars and restaurants serving “chips like at home” and “mama’s apple pie”. Instead we had steamed mussels, scallops, oysters, langoustines, prawns and every type of fish imaginable, including sole, turbot, sea bass and hake.

Hotel Escudos

Although neither province sees a lot of foreign tourists, there are a couple of Michelin recommended restaurants with food and prices that will astound those used to paying a small fortune in such establishments. Vigo in Galicia also has a superb 5* Hotel, The Escudos, located just outside the town and overlooking the bay. There are beautiful gardens and a 200 year old camellia tree (in full blossom when I was there last week) and a few steps lead from the garden down to the beach.

 Vigo Bay, Spain
I returned from Galicia only two days ago and the temperature then was still in the mid-twenties, something I hadn’t reckoned on when I decided on the area. I had packed mainly autumn clothes, never imaginging I would be sitting in the main square at 2.30 in the morning in tee-shirt.
Crabs and Giant Prawns
Now back in the UK with dark nights and rain lashing the windows, I shall settle down to working from my notes and uploading some more articles on about my travels. Next week sees the World Travel Market at Excel in London where I shall spend a few days renewing acquaintances with friends from around the globe and finding out what different countries are planning for visitors for next year.
If any earth-shattering news comes my way, it will be in my next blog.
Till then …..

The Isle of Wight -Sea, Sand and Festivals

They flock here for the walking, the cycling, the clean, fresh air, and the sea and the sand.  They also come for the Pop Festival which takes place every year and is such a success that the organizers are now talking of having two per year. Top groups headline the event, from The Rolling Stones, to Lily Allen, and the island almost sinks under the crowds that arrive for four days of music and fun. The original pop festival was way back in the sixties, when the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Doors, Tiny Tim (remember him?) and various other singers and groups thrilled the fans who flocked to the island from all over Europe. Now that pop festivals are two a penny, we don’t make the headlines as we did then, but it’s still an important date on the festival calendar.

Buddle Inn, Isle of Wight, famous pub in connection with smugglers.
Buddle Inn, Isle of Wight, famous pub in connection with smugglers.

When the visitors recover from the heady excitement of sleeping in tents and living on burgers and chips, they usually head off to see the sights.  Osborne House,  Queen Victoria’s Italianate villa near Cowes and an English Heritage property, is high on everyone’s list as it is one of the few royal summer palaces that still resembles a family home.  It is much as it was when Queen Victoria was on the throne, and the children’s nursery, their toys, her desk next to that of her beloved husband Albert, and the many stone statues of the family pets are still scattered about the house and grounds.  Victoria’s tiny bed where she died is still on view along with the bathrooms and part of the kitchens and an amazing collection of family photographs.

There is now a delightful cottage in the grounds of the estate which can be rented for long weekends or a week, during which time the renters have the use of the grounds after the visitors have gone. Queen for a day!

Osborne House, Queen Victoria's Home on the Isle of Wight

Round then to Cowes to view the sailing boats battling the currents and the winds on the Solent. The world’s most famous Regatta, Cowes Week (actually ten days in August) may no longer attract the crowned heads of Europe but it still attracts the royally rich in their magnificent yachts to sport on the Solent’s famous waters.  Yachts owned my billionaires and crewed by millionaire they say.

View from The Downs, Isle of WightA stop at Farringford House for coffee in the former home of the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, where one can sit on the terrace and gazed at the magnificent lawns that sweep down to Freshwater Bay and then, suitably refreshed,  a hike across Tennyson Downs where it is said the poet composed The Charge of the Light Brigade, reciting it as he strode along the coastal path, cape flapping in the breeze and breathing in air that he described as “worth 6d. a pint”.

Quiet evening on the sea

Time must be allowed for visiting Carisbrooke Castle from which Charles I was taken to London and beheaded, the delightful Brading Roman Villa with an excellent shop on site, good restaurant/cafe and daily activities for children which involves dressing up.   The island has a reputation of great pubs serving good beers (and wines) and in between visits to famous landmarks and museums, the traditional pubs – old, thatched, with flagged floors and old beams, offer great places for lunch or a snack, morning coffee or afternoon cream tea, and for the fresh home grown pork and lamb, home cured bacon and sausages, our own garlic dishes from the garlic farm, lobster, crabs, prawns and fish straight from the sea.

Truly, an Isle of wonders.

Shanklin, The Crab Inn

And maybe, book up again for the next music festival?  The Blues Festival, or Bestival in September, another great week-end of music under the stars on an island that Karl Marx described as “a little bit of paradise”.

Words and Images from around the World

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