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I love the luxury of bath oils and salts but dislike strong floral or artificial scents and so am always on the look out for products that use scents more based on spice or cream. Coming across the vanilla fountain in lush delighted me as it is based upon vanilla but with jasmine too and intended as a moisturiser also.
Unlike the majority of other bath ballistics the vanilla fountain is not a ball shape but a small cream coloured pudding shape with a vanilla pod exploding out the top like a spurting fountain.
I dropped the ballistic into a hot bath and was a little disappointed to find that it dissolved very quickly, probably the quickest of all the lush ballistics I have used. I prefer those that take a little longer to dissolve so that you have time to play with it!
As it dissolves a strong vanilla scent is released that permeates the whole bathroom and stays for a long time. There is also a faint undertone of jasmine, very understated which is exactly my preference. For a non-coloured product, however, it does colour the water to a surprising creamy-green which is a little annoying.
The vanilla fountain is meant to be moisturising and although I did feel like it had a softening effect on mh skin it was not a deep moisturiser in the way that some other lush moisturising products are. It did not dry my skin but it didn't feel silky smooth either.
After leaving the bath my skin felt soft, non-greasy and the scent of vanilla stayed faintly on my skin for a good while.
As with many lush products a residue is left in the bath which requires a good rinse out. As with all lush products it is vegan friendly and not tested on animals.
Vanilla fountain is £2.99 for one ballistic.
As a lover of lush products I was happy to receive a bottle of happy hippy shower gel as an early Christmas present and excitedly started using it right away.
The first thing that I noticed with happy hippy is the smell which is very strong as soon as you pop the lid open, with a fantastic tang of grapefruit which actually smells like the fruit (if in a concentrated form) rather than asoap or artificial version of it. The smell permeated my whole showerroom for a good half hour after I left the shower. It is also a fairly gender neutral scent which can be handy. In the evening after showering in the morning I could still detect a faint grapefruit smell on my skin so it has good staying power too.
Unfortunately, after using this shower gel I started to develop a rash around my neck and other sensitve areas which I had washed with the gel. At first I wasn't sure it was down to happy hippy but when I stopped using it the rash cleared up and when I started using it again it came back so I am reasonably sure this was the cause. I have never experiences this with a lush product before so am unsure exactly what the sensitivity is but would recommend to others with sensitive skin to be careful or do a test patch before using.
The bottle is squeezable plastic and it is easy enough to get the product out of. A second downside, however, is that I felt I had to use quite a lot of the product in one go to cover my body. It didn't froth up very well and sometimes I felt I had to use quite a lot of it and work at getting a bit of a lather otherwise it would just have slid uselessly off my body. If a lather was built up unlike some 'novelty' type shower gels I felt this wasn't just about a great scent but was also very effective at doing it's main job-of cleaning your body. It left a clean smooth feeling skin which wasn't dried out (aside from allergic reactions!).
As per usual for lush, this is vegan friendly and not tested on animals. It costs £5.50 for 250g.
I am fan of lush products in general but the butterball is a particular favourite of mine. For those who don't know the bath ballistics are the lush range of bath salts which instead of being loose are compacted into balls of fun that are dropped into a bath where they dissolve and fizz. I like the fun element of dropping in a bath bomb and being able to play with it whilst it dissolves, as I'm sure many children will!
The butterball is one of the smaller of the bath ballistic range and also the cheapest at £2.25 for 95g. It is in the form of a slightly knobbly white ball.
On dropping the ball into the water, the aroma of vanilla and cocoa butter is immediately released and stay in the air for the duration of an average bath rather than disappearing after a few minutes. There is also ylang ylang oil which is discernable amid the other scents but quite understated. I prefer this as I dislike strong floral scents but some may have preferred this to be a little stronger.
The main bonus of the butterball other than just smelling great is it has been specifically designed to soften and moisturise the skin, as a key ingredient is cocoa butter. I find it effective at making my skin feel all silky and smooth far more than any other bath salts (including the lush range). I have a number of skin complaints and chronic dry skin and like that this is soothing and doesn't irritate my skin but still has a fantastic smell.
After leaving the bath I find the scent of the butterball stays faintly on the skin without being cloying or overbearing. My skin also feels soft and smooth which stays long after leaving the water. The bath usually needs a rinse out as there can be a residue left over from the product but a quick swirl of water deals with it.
Suitable for veggies and vegans, like all lush products this is made from natural ingredients and not tested on animals.
I was first left a tube of this by a friend who couldn't take it on the plane with her and started using it simply so it wasn't wasted but it is now my favourite moisturiser by a long way. It can be bought in all the usual shops for around the £5 mark. The tube is a simple design with green writing and cap against an oat coloured body which befits a high quality cream.
I suffer from dry skin, sensitive skin and psoriasis and can struggle to get a good moisturiser that doesn't exacerbate any of these and also doesn't make me smell like a chemist but Aveeno manages to do the job. Obviously it doesn't cure the psoriasis but it makes it feel a lot better.
The cream is quite thick but spreads on skin very easily so that a small amount covers a large area. The cream is silky smooth and sinks into the skin easily and quickly not leaving a damp residue yet also not just disappearing into the skin without being effective. I don't use a moisturiser every day and if I have used this I can still tell the following day as my skin is silky smooth and soft which is very rare.
The smell of the cream I find very appealling. In some ways it is an understated smell, certainly not perfumed or floral but a faint oaty scent but my girlfriend always notices when I have this on and comments that 'I smell nice'.
I have heard from a friend that this is very good for her eczema but even if not then as a simple moisturiser this ticks all the boxes-effective at making your skin silky smooth whilst leaving a faint but nice smell behind. Highly recommended.
Initially the main point to make about hostels in southern Spain including Granada is that the quality is generally very high. I stayed in Granada for a few days after crossing from Morocco and was blown away by the high standards but even in comparison to many places I have stayed in other Western European countries I'd say that hostels in this region are particularly good.
I stayed in 2 hostels, the Oasis and the Makuto which were both excellent. I wouldn't say one was better than the other but Oasis is slightly nearer the main area whereas Makuto is further up the hill which is a struggle with a backpack and also a little too much out of the way if you are alone at night. On the flip side though, Oasis is the number one recommended hostel in many big guidebooks therefore always packed out and noisier than Makuto.
The Oasis is very well signposted just off the main tourist drag and in a beautiful renovated Andalucian building. Dorms are either 6 or 4 people with shared showers that have good pressure and hot water all day. They are very clean and there are large communal areas with satellite TV and internet which is all included in the price as is a simple breakfast. Lockers are available but are not big enough for an entire backpack. The hostel is friendly but big and very popular so it is possible to get lost in the crowd a little.
Makuto has a much more secluded, hippy haunt feel to it which some people may not like but I preferred. It has much the same deal with very clean 6 bed dorms, very comfortable beds and high pressure, hot water showers. It also has communal areas with TV, internet and breakfast included in the price. In the central courtyard is a treehouse which is a lot of fun to relax in on a nice day. Again there are lockers but they are not large enough for a whole backpack. I found it easier to chat to people here and whilst both hostels organise activities such as guided walks and pub tours I found the whole process more laid back at the Makuto.
Both hostels were 15 euros a night for a dorm bed which I think is excellent value for what you get and I would recommend either for any length of stay in Granada.
Chefchaouen (pronounced shef-shaow-en) is one of the rare places in the world which is both very touristy and very enjoyable. Based in the Rif mountains in the north of Morocco, the city is on the edge of the area which produces more than 40% of the world's marijuana which probably accounts for something of its laid back air. The green mountain scenery and blue and white painted houses also give the area more of an Andalusian feel than a Moroccan one, especially for those whose heads are filled with sand dunes and nomadic berbers. However, this can be a welcome respite for those coming from the heat and chaos of much of the rest of Morocco whilst maintaining an exotic edge for those visiting from Europe.
The main thing to do in Chaouen is to wander around the ancient medina where most tourists will be based. This area is packed with tourist shops selling much of the usual souvenirs and gifts of the rest of the country along with a bunch of hippy style clothing. The downsides are that I didn't see many of the spice stores you get in almost all Moroccan cities and prices can be on the high side given the excess of tourists willing to pay over the odds all contained within a small area. The bright colours of all the wares do make a fun backdrop to the ancient blue walls of the buildings. The medina itself is a maze of little picturesque alleys but is also small enough that getting lost is not a major concern as you will soon reach the edge or a major landmark and be able to reorient yourself.
The main square has a pretty mosque with an unusual eight sided minaret but, as is normal in Morocco, thie interior is shut to non-Muslims. There is also the old Kasbah with a small art gallery. It isn't particularly spectacular but as entry is 10 dirham (about 1 euro) it can be a nice way to while away an hour or so.
It is also possible to wander to the outskirts of the town (a couple of minutes outside the medina, maps being provided at every guesthouse) and visit a run down mosque and a small waterfall. Mainly though it is just nice to find a quiet spot to relax and enjoy the scenery which is quite spectacular.
Hashish is available everywhere in Chaouen, largely from touts who circle all the tourist areas offering their goods. Many tourists partake in more than the odd toke but it is worth bearing in mind that although there is a decriminalised air surrounding its sale and use, hash is illegal everywhere in Morocco and can result in harsh penalties. As a Westerner the risks of extortion and entrapment are also present.
Chefchaouen is firmly on the tourist trail and well connected by bus to major cities in the north (such as Tangier and Tetoun) as well as further afield such as Fes and Marrakesh. Cheap taxis are available for local trips but the old city and surroundings are small enough to navigate on foot.
Accommodation and Food
The old centre of Chaouen is full of hostels, pensions and hotels with a wide price range. I stay in the cheap end of the spectrum and found that Chaouen was well above average in terms of cleanliness and value for money. The main square is filled with cafes and restaurants which offer the same range and prices as tourist places in other Moroccan cities-tagines, couscous, breakfasts and omelettes. To get local fare you need to head out of the old medina.
Overall, Chaouen comes highly recommended from me for giving an alternative side of Morocco from the desert and being completely laid back. Perfect place to chill out, do very little and enjoy beautiful surroundings.
Ad Dakhla, in the very south of the disputed region of the Western Sahara which has been annexed by Morocco, is around 550km from the nearest town of significant size and can truly feel like the end of the road. As far as I can tell there are only two reasons why foreigners make the 25 hour bus trip through desert from Marrakesh. Firstly it is a necessary stop for those overlanding to Mauritania, who must arrange 4WD transport here since the road literally does stop before the border. Second is for those who have an interest in watersports as the town has become something of a kitesurfing hotspot.
Nonetheless, although Dakhla is remote it has quite a cosmopolitan feel to it probably due to the fact that it is artificially populated by Moroccans from the cities of the north who are attracted down by tax rebates and high wages. There is absolutely nothing Western Saharan about the place. As a result there are a flurry of hotels from budget up to luxury and restaurants/cafes/ATM/internet outlets to match so it is possible to get more or less anything you want here. It possesses a strange mixture in atmosphere between supreme isolation and a rich-kid playground.
Dakhla is set on a penninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, so is surrounded by sparkling blue sea and red desert which is mind-blowing. The town itself, however, is less inspired. This is a modern city and feels quite soulless. It is clean, generally well constructed and full of standard pink painted concrete that is found in any newly built areas of Morocco. It is also continually expanding so much of the outer edges are constant building works. In other words, there isn't a lot to complain about but there is nothing to recommend either.
The one reason that people make the trip down here is for the kite and windsurfng. I didn't do this myself, so all I can say is that all hotels will arrange this and all the gear for what seemed like reasonable prices.
The Western Sahara has always claimed its right to independence after the withdrawal of European colonial powers from Africa. Morocco, however, claims the area as its own and has been in occupation since the 1970s when they wanted access to valuable nitrates. There has been a ceasefire between Morocco and the Western Saharan resistance since the 1990s but the UN and the military are still obvious in the whole region. Landmines are scattered in the desert, which is a further reason to take a guide out there. There are currently no safety issues other than watching that you don't take pictures of anythng connected with the military as they could confiscate your camera, but it always pays just to keep an eye on the news. Unfortunately though it looks like Morocco has been successful in its takeover to all extents and purposes.
Around the town there are plenty of petit taxis although they aren't really necessary as everything is within walking distance. Getting out, there are buses to the north but as the southern border to Mauritania is disputed there is no public transport and also no road for the inter-border area so it is necessary to arrange shared 4WD. This is easy to do from any of the hotels in town.
If Dakhla was about 20 hours nearer to any other tourist spot, I might have said it was worth dropping in if you like water sports or a bit of desert driving. As it is unless you are forced to stop here on the overland trip to Mauritania then it certainly isn't worth making a special trip here.
Walking into Dino's in Glasgow is similar to walking into a museum of Italian kitsch complete with red checked table cloths, pictures of famous Italian sights and trellis fencing probably intended to conjure images of sitting outside on the Italian Riviera. Instead, however, it made me think the place was brash and overstated particularly given that the outside consists of red, green and white glaring signs (I actually thought it was a fast food restaurant for a good few years).
Having not booked a table we did have to wait for a couple of minutes at the door before being seated but the waiting staff were very polite. There wasn't time for us to be offered a drink as a table was ready very quickly. However, after seating us the waiter seemed to disappear for a long time, leaving us trying to catch the eye of any waiter around us. When we did, he said he would go get our waiter which took another 10 minutes or so. Not terrible but a slightly annoying start to the meal. Through the meal the waiter was attentive without being intrusive but then at the end when we wanted to pay he vanished again. I accept they were busy but we were left for over half an hour of trying to get the bill, and as we were going elsewhere afterwards this was irritating.
This is not a restaurant I would recommend for a quiet or romantic meal as I found it quite noisy which I think is mainly because it is quite a small room as the kitchen is not open so the noise isn't due to that.
Food as you would expect is Italian in theme, with a standard selection of pizzas and pastas. As we were heading to the cinema and had limited time we only had one course with a bottle of wine. I had grilled king prawns in garlic whilst my partner had the salmon. The food was served in a reasonable time but I thought it was a little disappointing. The sauce with my prawns was overpowering, and very think rather than the expected light sauce that normally goes with this type of seafood and the salmon was a little overcooked. On the upside the portions were a good size.
This is a city centre restaurant and so paying a little over the odds is to be expected. However, with starters coming in around £8 and mains around £10 without meat, I felt this restaurant was pricing itself as a top of the mid-range place when it is really very standard. Pizzas are reasonable value at around £8-£10 for a good size but I felt slightly ripped off as I could have had as nice a meal in nicer surroundings for the same or less cost elsewhere.
Overall Dino's was not a bad experience and I cannot pick out anything that was terrible. However, a combination of things such as slightly inattentive waiters, slightly too expensive and not quite great food means that I wouldn't recommend this place. Passable and if you don't have another option it will be an ok meal, but don't expect too much.
Unlike many places in the world now, the most spectacular part of a trip to the small Venezuelan village of Puerto Colombia is still the journey to reach it. This collection of posadas and the adjoining colonial village of Choroni are situated a mere 2 hour drive from Maracay on the west Caribbean coast of Venezuela yet they seem like they are a truly rural slice of life. The main reason for this is that the journey to the village involves a hair raising ride crossing over a mountain and through the Henri Pittier National Park. Either by bus or by shared taxi, you hurtle through hairpin bends, usually arbitrarily using either side of the road and swinging widely back to the proper side when a vehicle appears coming the other way, up around 2000metres into the clouds and then back down to sea level.
Part of the attraction of Venezuela for me was that it is less overrun with tourists than many other countries in the region, and not because it lacks potential tourist attractions. However, in reality, and somewhat ironically given the political situation, the cities are by far the most north-Americanised of the South American countries I have visited. Walking out of the main airport terminal in Caracas, I was greeted with a sign saying 'Welcome to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela' alongside a McDonalds, TGI Fridays and a picture of a Venezuelan playing their favourite sport-Baseball. Thus as Puerto Colombia was the first place that I visited away from the city, I was impressed by its small, quaint charm, slow pace of life and mix of different Venezuelan ethnicities.
Whilst it is relaxed, I don't mean to imply that it is undiscovered. Indeed it is a holiday spot for many Venezuelans and is known on the gringo trail also. It's just that the gringo trail is a little faint here and in my week long stay the only foreigners I met were one German girl and one group of students from the U.S. As a result the village is reasonably well set up for tourists, with plenty of little posadas (guesthouses) and restaurants whilst still retaining a local flavour and not yet demeaned to serving up a western atmosphere in a tropical country.
Be aware that neither Choroni nor Puerto Colombia have a bank and so it is important to bring enough cash for your entire trip here, bearing in mind that many people want to stay longer than they first planned. If you bring US dollars it is possible to change on the black market at a good rate-subtly ask around and you'll be pointed in the right direction. For those who are unaware, only dollars can be exchanged for local currency in Venezuela and the official rate is around 1/3 to ½ of the black market rate and will make your trip much more expensive. Drawing from an ATM will be charged at the official exchange rate so most travellers tend to bring in a pile of US dollars and exchange them. Of course, I have to stress that although everyone does this it is technically illegal and you could be arrested for it (although more likely would pay a bribe to the police).
Puerto Colombia is a small place and there isn't much to do other than relax and enjoy being in beautiful surroundings-this is what makes it such a great place! The main focus is the beach of Playa Grande which is a long curved stretch of white sand lined with palm trees that provide shade from the sun and circling a bay of aquamarine water. Add the backdrop of the spectacular mountains of the National Park and it really is a perfectly situated beach. The downside of course is that everyone knows it is a perfect beach and so in high season it can get quite busy. It is still quiet compared to the beaches of European holiday resorts but enough people can fill Playa Grande to take off the isolated getaway feel. If this is the case, I recommend asking around the village for a boat which for a small fee will take visitors out around the coast to find truly isolated beaches and coves where you can be entirely alone.
As with many beach areas the counterpoint to lazing around on the beach all day is to party away the night but in a different way to being in a nightclub. The culture of the Caribbean coast in Venezuela is probably the most mixed in the country, with white Spanish, indigenous and mestizo combined with a large African influence creating quite an eclectic array of music and dance. It is quite common to find groups of musicians playing along the water edge, beach or in restaurants. Buying a bottle of rum or cans of beer and following the music is the best way to pass an evening-when I was there a group of drummers played African-Caribbean beats till early in the morning.
A final reason people visit the area is apparently for the fantastic bird watching. I have no knowledge or interest in this area so can only make limited comments but there were trips offered for reasonable prices to try and see some of the areas wildlife and birds.
Overall this is a relaxed place where it is possible to have some beach time and party at night. However, despite there not being a lot else to do I didn't find I got bored as I would on an ordinary beach holiday which I actually quite detest. Although there is not much else apart from the beach in terms of entertainment, the differences in culture and friendliness of the locals sucked me into the quiet pace of life. I found that I really enjoyed chatting to different groups about everything under the sun and got invited back with the locals to eat or drink so I didn't have time to feel bored. One final point here is that at least a basic knowledge of Spanish really is necessary as English is not spoken and although the locals will make an effort to talk to anyone, without Spanish the level of conversation could easily become tedious. However, make the effort and it is easy to pass days or weeks here relaxing and chatting without ever thinking you are missing out on anything.
Colonia (Colonia de Sacramento) is a small colonial style town situated at the mouth of the River Plata in southern Uruguay. It was an important town as it was on the border between the Portuguese colony in the north that would become Brazil and the Spanish colony of the vice-royalty of the River Plata which would become Argentina. The strategic location on the river, which was important for transport and trade, means it was much fought over and changed between the two colonies many times. Nowadays, the town is quite small and its importance is linked to the fact that it is a huge tourist town with visitors coming from Uruguay, Argentina and across the world to see a sleepy, well-preserved colonial town. Colonia is on the UNESCO World heritage list.
Most people visit Colonia as part of a day trip from Buenos Aires (BA) in Argentina, which lies on the other side of the river mouth. Crossing is made by way of regular ferries and there is a slow service taking around 3 hours or a fast service taking about 1 hour. There are also frequent buses to Colonia from other Uruguayan destinations such as Montevideo and Punte del Este. For most travellers both Uruguay and Argentina are visa free and provide a 90 day stamp on arrival which can be renewed as often as desired so there are no difficulties with crossing the border. With the ferry, passport control is a simple check and stamp at each end requiring no more than filling out a simple arrival/departure sheet. Colonia itself is small and can all easily be accessed on foot but there are also many taxis around for those with limited mobility.
Colonia's main attraction is simply the fact that it is a well-preserved and pretty town from the colonial period that is far enough from the chaos of the cities in the region but still near enough that no more than a few hours travel is necessary. Charming and quaint are two words often used to describe the town and are very accurate. It is nice to wander in the sunshine along the pebbled shore, or small dock and absorb the slower side of life. The houses are old-fashioned stone, and often painted in bright colours so whilst being quiet, it is far from a dull, gray place. The downside to all this is that Colonia can have something of a display town feel to it, with everything being a little too perfectly preserved and I do wonder if much has been altered or fixed to keep it in such a perfect state. Sometimes a state of disrepair adds to the authenticity of historical places! The other side of this is that the town is almost no longer a real place but exists entirely for tourists-it doesn't feel lived in at all and is far from a genuine slice of Uruguayan life. Indeed most of the people who live here make their money from the tourist industry, almost no-one is unconnected to it and as a friend I met here stated, 'This is not Uruguay'.
Of course, the above points withstanding there are still a few interesting things to see as you wander through the town. Climbing up to the lighthouse is a good idea as it is a charming old-style building that looks as if it came straight out the 19th century and also offers great views over the rest of the town. Additionally for a one-off fee payable at the old gate main entrance, you can get a ticket that allows access to 9 museums. None of these are particularly spectacular and all are small but the fact that they focus around local trades or everyday items of colonial life gives a glimpse into the mundane side of living here in the past which is subsumed under all the talk of fighting and colonial squabbles. There are also plenty of quality souvenir stalls around, and roving sellers but these are generally quite overpriced and I didn't see anything that I couldn't get in any other place around the region.
As the town is on the edge of the water sitting around the pebble beachs or relaxing on the wooden pier is a great way to pass time. I found there were always locals (of sorts, at least!) hanging around and happy to chat to visitors. It is also a green place, with plenty of trees and grassy areas that almost give it a feel of an old-fashioned English village from some rose-tinted past.
The food in Uruguay doesn't differ dramatically from that in Argentina, and there is also plenty to cater for fussy western tourists. There is a lot of steak available as well as variations on that theme as well as a variety of Italian influenced dishes, in particular gnocchi. A good range of soft drinks and alcohol is available but trying mate should be high on the priority list. This is a hot drink made from the yerba plant and is a must if travelling in sub-tropical South America-Uruguay has a strong claim as the original inventors of the drink and it is a fun way to get talking to people. It is a social experience to drink mate as there is a whole ritual associated with it, so if offered mate then I'd advise anyone to jump at the chance.
If you do want to stay over in the town there are a number of hostels and hotels scattered throughout the old town, many in charming colonial buildings. Although I have said that there isn't really a lot to do in Colonia, I would actually recommend staying overnight. That might seem a contradiction but the major advantage of the town is its chilled, holiday atmosphere and having a place to stay means you have somewhere to relax and just watch the world go by in comfort rather than just wandering until your boat takes you back to BA. Also after everyone has gone home, you have the town to yourself. Expect to pay around US $10 for a hostel or anything from US $20 up to $150 depending on the quality you want.
A major downside of Colonia is the cost. On average Uruguay appeared to be around only slightly more expensive than Argentina, which is not hugely expensive for a westerner but not dirt cheap either. However, being almost exclusively a tourist town, Colonia has inflated prices and for food and drink you can expect to pay almost as much as you would in a western town. The official currency is, of course, the Uruguayan peso but as the Argentinean peso is widely accepted if you are only here for the day, exchanging cash is probably more effort and cost than it is worth.
Overall I would recommend Colonia for a day or two if you are fed up of the big city, either Buenos Aires or Montevideo as it lives up to its reputation as a relaxing get away. However, there probably isn't enough to occupy many people for longer than this and it is also not the place to come to see regular Uruguayan life-this is very much a tourist-town.
PS. I use dollars instead of pounds throughout this review because the prices tend to vary in line with the dollar, which is also sometimes accepted as a unit of currency (I dislike this though so try to avoid it!). Using pounds would make the figures less reliable.
Di Maggios, as the name may suggest, are a string of Italian restaurants situated in and around the Glasgow area. I will be reviewing the city centre restaurant specifically which is situated in Royal Exchange Square but I believe that the quality and atmosphere have been similar in their other restaurants so would (slightly tentatively since I haven't been to them all!) recommend the others equally.
I hadn't booked the restaurant and so was a little concerned that I would have to wait as it was a Friday night. Luckily there was room and my partner and I were seated straight away but it can get quite busy so I would recommend booking just to be sure if you really want to come here. From the start the waiter managed to achieve the right balance of being friendly but not intruding on us-my personal preference is when a waiter keeps out of your way except when you want them for something. This is actually quite difficult, from being a waiter myself, as you have to keep an eye on the guests and sort of guess what they want without hanging around them or butting in to ask if they need anything. I felt that the waiters managed to pop up almost as soon as I needed anything but I didn't feel I was ever hassled by them. They also took orders and served food in a reasonable amount of time.
The Di Maggio's website describes the place as a 'vibrant hub of activity' and I would say that is fairly accurate. However, whilst I assume they mean this in a positive sense, I found that it meant it was a little too busy, a little too noisy and the décor had a little too much going on in it. To qualify, it was far from terrible and not completely chaotic as some restaurants seem but there was a buzz that seemed to stem a little from panic with a constant circulation of people. My partner and I were placed in one of the segregated wooden booths this time which meant we were pleasantly separated from the other diners and had our own little calm isolated world but this couldn't be guaranteed as up the back there are many tables laid out in a common area.
The décor I felt was passable, with a dark wood and cream design throughout which is unlikely to offend anyone's taste. There were an excess of pictures floating around-as if they had wanted to cover every inch of the wall-and I felt that being a little more selective in choosing a few good pictures may have added the finishing touch to the surroundings which was missing.
The food overall was very good. As you would expect in an Italian restaurant there was a fairly large selection of pizzas and pastas but there was also a seafood selection, gourmet burgers and chicken and steak dishes plus the starters, breads and salads. The menu is quite comprehensive and will probably cover a wide range of tastes. I decided to go for the mussels in cream and wine for a starter and followed it up with Mediterranean salmon for a main. My partner went for bruschetta and lasagne. My mussels were excellent, the sauce creamy but with a tang from the wine and not too overpowering. It was quite a large bowl for a starter-I'm sure I've been given less for a main meal before! The salmon was nothing special but was correctly cooked with a pleasant side salad which was a lot more than a few scabby lettuce leaves. My partner said his bruschetta was very good and not over toasted as sometimes happens and the lasagne was very tasty, with a good creamy sauce but also a thick tomato based sauce.
For a city centre Glasgow restaurant on the Square I believe the menu is fairly reasonably priced. Starters hover around the £5 mark whilst mains are between £8 and £12 whilst side orders tended to be around £3. I do believe that you are paying more for location as although the food was good I have had equally good food and paid less for it outside of the centre, however, for the convenience of a central restaurant the mark-up in price is not too bad and prices are comparable or less than many of the surrounding restaurants.
Overall this was a pleasant restaurant experience. We felt relaxed and could take our time eating in nice surroundings. I have nothing negative to say about the experience, the only downside is that some people seem to really love it and I found it satisfying without being a really amazing place that I would rave about to everyone I know. In other words, I do recommend it but it doesn't quite feature on my outstanding restaurants list-its just missing that extra something!
For booking online or a brief preview of the restaurant then go to http://www.dimaggios.co.uk/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1
I recently went to the Koh-i-noor for a celebratory dinner and was exceitedly looking forward to it as it is a well-known Indian restaurant in Glasgow and reputedly one of the original (and best?) in Scotland.
Koh-i-noor is situated just up from Charing Cross on North Street so faces out over the motorway that runs through the centre of the city. Obviously with this start I wasn't expecting fantastic views out of the restaurant windows but unfortunately on walking in I realised that a calm and relaxing interior to contrast with the busy outside was not the theme they had gone for! The positives are that for such a busy location the restaurant is very quiet inside and the tables are mostly in the back where they are far from the street and passing cars. Unfortunately, however, the decor doesn't seem to have been changed since the 1970s and is a harsh clash of different patterns and colours. There were garish and now quite dated and stereotypical pictures of 'Indian lovers' or court scenes-all very colonial. The lights were also quite glaringly bright.
The waiters were very friendly and took orders/served food promptly and efficiently. The downside was that I felt we were constantly having our meal interrupted to be asked if we were enjoying it-4 different waiters asked this during the main course alone. I find this quite intrusive and did wonder if a system where there is one waiter per table would help cut this down as it was obvious they didn't know that we had already been asked 2, 3, 4 times already!
At a table of four we had the pre-theatre menu (available 3-6pm) which offers a selection of starters, mains and an ice cream, gulab jaman or coffee or tea for the grand price of £9.95 per person-this seemed a good deal as we needed to eat early anyway. The selection is good, particularly for a pre-theatre menu with 10-15 starters and mains available which cover the standard pakoras/bajis and different types of curries with 3 'European options' for the mains. For vegetarians there was a choice of Tarka Daal, Saag Aloo or vegetable curry (unspecified!). We ordered a selection of the dishes available.
The starters were quite good, although it is hard to really get pakora that spectacularly wrong. The mushrooms were really quite spicy but I like this and he did ask before I ordered if this was ok. Unfortunately the standard wasn't sustained and the main courses were very average. All of the dishes were warm but not really properly hot and had obviously been reheated from large batches. This in itself isn't terrible if done correctly but when they aren't really heated well through it does make you wonder about the quality. On top of that all of the dishes were extremely oily and the taste was passable at best. The one success was a korma which was a little spicy unusually but our table actually appreciated this. We all had coffee in place of the desserts, which again were fine but nothing special.
Overall my abiding impression of Koh-i-noor is that it was distinctly average. Whilst that may have been influenced by my expectations of it being very high to start with I did feel quite disappointed. This may be one of the first Indian restaurants in Scotland but now there are so many others of a better quality I don't think I'll be rushing back.
The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle thought to have been erected between 2500BC and 200BC on the mainland island of Orkney and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apparently henges (that is the circular flat area and surrounding bank/ditch) do not usually have stone circles in them and therefore this site along with Stonehenge are anomalies. Unfortunately because of the prominence of Stonehenge and the fact that a flat circular bit of land from Neolithic times doesn't really look like much, the unusualness of the site is rather overlooked as people flock to see yet another stone circle.
Of the probable original 60 stones, 27 remain in a huge circle in an otherwise unremarkable field. The circle is 104 metres in diametre which is a massive distance when you are standing in the centre of it. Whilst I have heard people denigrate a site which consists of a few stones stuck into a field, in their words, I would urge anyone not to go with this attitude.
Walking up from the road I was briefly disappointed as at first the standing stones don't look that big. In fact from far away it can look a little like a joke with someone hauling a few stones and dumping them in a rough circle. As you get closer, however, it becomes more and more obvious that these stones individually are huge and also that this is a near perfect circle. Not impressed by that? Think how hard it is to draw a near perfect circle with a pencil on a piece of paper, then think of trying to do that with a pile of stones that weigh several tonnes each. The stones stand between 2.1 and 4.7 metres high above the ground and when standing beside one they really tower over you. The rocks are slabs of sandstone and covered as they are with patches of moss and lichen they have a strange habit of blending in and then jumping out of the landscape-at one moment they can seem so natural until the fact that a circle of huge stones is not something that nature would just thrown up!
Whilst I haven't gone to Stonehenge and so can't make a comparison, I can say that there is something about the Orkney Isles themselves which make all the Neolithic sites but particularly this circle, extremely awe inspiring. The landscape has a wild look to it, and so instead of gentle countryside you are surrounded by small but rough hills, lochs and a windswept landscape which make life here more of a struggle than down south even in modern times never mind 4000 years ago. That doesn't understate the presence of other sites but the magical quality here was strong for me. The light of being far north has that slightly peculiar and clear quality to it and it is easy to imagine a group of people standing here for some important rite or ceremony. I would recommend going later in the afternoon or evening (depending on the time of year, but when the shadows start getting long) as there was something about the dragged out shadows which emphasized just how huge these stones were as well as giving a strange extra dark ring in the circle which demonstrate its shape.
A few points to look out for are one of the stones which was struck by lightning in 1980 and split leaving half the block on the ground. There is a small plaque noting the stone and how the ring is subject to the ravages of nature. It is quite impressive it is as intact as it is after 4000 or more years. Also many of the stones have graffiti on them, which I know some people dislike but these notes on the stone date back (supposedly) to the 12th century as well as leading up to the modern day. The oldest I found were from the 18th century but it is a strange record of visitors to the site through time and proof that graffiti is far from being a fault of modern times. Actually here I wouldn't call it a fault anyway as there are only small carvings on the rock and they are interesting-no big spray painted signs!
The one downside of the site is that in order to preserve them a few of the stones have had modern concrete on them to fill in cracks. There is always a difficult balance to be struck between preserving the site for the future and leaving the site as natural and original as possible but I do tend to come down on the side of the latter. For me, we just have to accept that the site won't stay the same forever and the best we can do is track and record any changes but not stop them although I accept some people disagree strongly on this point!
As to the purpose of the Ring of Brodgar or how it was constructed, as with many ancient sites, in truth no-one really knows. There are a number of educated guesses which usually centre on it being some sort of ceremonial site, possibly a site of religious ritual or as an early observatory. Like Stonehenge it is thought that an inner circle may once have existed and that this may have been sectioned off for use only by some type of priests or higher cast who would undertake rituals whilst the masses remained in the outer circle. Note all the 'mays': in reality nobody can say for sure but it is very likely that this area was of some significance given that the circle is situated on a narrow isthmus with other standing stones and stone circles (Brodgar is the most impressive!) and Maeshowe and other cairns are nearby. It is the highest concentration of sites from Neolithic times anywhere in Britain.
As tips, Brodgar itself has little information and no shelter so try to go on a dry day or you will get soaked and get a booklet at another site if you want background information on the place. A good idea is to go see Maeshowe first as there is a compulsory guided tour which covers some of the surrounding sites such as Brodgar. It gives a little background rather than simple staring at huge stones, as impressive as they are!
There is a small car park just beside the circle and entry is free. There is simple a kissing gate at the foot of the field and a slightly sloped grass path up to the stones.
Maeshowe is fantastically well-preserved neolithic chambered cairn in the west of Orkney's mainland, thought to date from around 2700BC. The cairn looks like a large grassy mound from the outside and was first excavated in 1846. It is now looked after by Historic Scotland and an appointment must be made to view the cairn as there are a limited number of people allowed inside on each tour (which is compulsary). I made an appointment earlier on the day I wanted to visit, in the height of the tourist season and on a nice day, so it doesn't seem likely that you need to book way in advance.
Cairn simply refers to a man-made conical stone structure but in reference to the neolithic structures found particularly across Scotland but also elsewhere in the UK, they are usually thought to be a sort of tomb.
After booking a tour all you need to do it turn up at the visitor centre a few minutes before it is due to start and a guide will take a small group (around 10 people) across a field and up to the cairn itself which can be easily seen. I am often dubious about guided tours as I have been on some truely awful ones and also I like being able to do my own thing and take my time but I have to say that the woman who took us was excellent. She was both informative and entertaining and the hour passed extremely quickly-she also gave plenty of opportunity to ask questions and we didn't feel rushed or bored.
The tour starts just outside the cairn's main entrance where the basic background history to the place is outlined. As with many ancient sites there isn't actually a lot that can be said for sure but the rough date it was constructed and what it was for can be 'guestimated'. It is a pretty incredible piece of architecture for the time and being almost 5000 years old shows that they knew what they were doing-not many modern buildings will last that long! Also at sunset on mid-winter a ray of light comes through the entrance passage illuminating the back wall-something which indicates a detailed knowledge of the sun and of construction which is amazing for the time. It is a surprisingly big area as from the outside the cairn has a diameter of 35 metres and this is surrounded by a moat around 20 metres further out.
The next part is the most exciting as you get to crawl along the passage into the main domed area. Most people will have to bend double to get along this passage which is around 10 metres long and can elicit some claustrophobia (and banged heads!), however, the main chamber is around 5 square metres in floor space and the roof is almost 4 metres so there was plenty of room for everyone without feeling squashed. Most people should feel fairly comfortable inside. It is a fascinating experience as the cairn is made simply by carefully placing stones on top of one another with no material to hold them together-yet the inside is watertight and very sturdy. Despite all the people inside with you it is quite easy to imagine being back in 2700 BC and this space having some special significance to you. The inside is really quite beautiful with huge, heavy but perfectly hewn stone curving up above to the roof-it is quite clear that an enormous amount of effort must have gone into constructing it.
Once inside our guide ran through some more of the known history of the cairn which is fascinating because of a few complications in the usual story of these places due to some viking grafitti from the 12th century. The early history of the cairn is quite standard as it is thought to have been used as a tomb with four chambers coming off the main chamber that were probably used to store bodies. However, at some point in the 12 th century some vikings seem to have broken in to get shelter and it is presumed that they threw out all the bodies and stole anything of value.
This little complication means there is no actual evidence of burial in the cairn and so it is even more guess work than normal as to what it was originally used for. It also resulted in making Maeshowe doubly interesting because of all the viking grafitti left behind. This was my, and most peoples, favourite part of the whole tour, as the vikings carved pictures and runes into the wall. What I love is there is a mixture of some quite artistic drawings coupled with just pointless doodling and stupid comments. Most of the grafitti translations turn out to be something like 'I love Doris' or one was 'I went to a lot of effort to write this up really high'! It gives a feeling of real humanity to the vikings which is quite rare and also make them seem far more similar to us modern day Scots than we may care to admit normally! I could imagine a bunch of vikings sheltering from a storm, chatting and carving things because they were bored-much closer to the day to day reality than most history about a major battle or important figure.
After this the guide ran through some of the modern excavation of the cairn and the new roof due to the original one being torn away by the first team to excavate the place. At the end I was really surprised to find that I had been inside almost an hour as every part of her speech was really interesting. I do love history but even for a few friends who are less fascinated by this did enjoy the tour and said she managed to bring it to life for them.
Maeshowe got World Heritage status in 1999 which is well deserved as it is a fascinating and quite unique glimpse into neolithic and viking times. For an adult it is £5.60 for an adult or £2.60 for a child and is well worth the cost. As a small aside, noone is sure what Maeshowe means although there are a number of possible theories-like most of this place you can choose which one you want to believe!
The Old Man of Hoy is the tallest sea stack in Europe at 137m and an impressive natural site for those who are sick of all the archeological sites around the Orkney Isles. Originally a headland, the sea stack is created when the force of the sea washes swirls and causes pressure on the land between the stack and the mainland until it falls away leaving just its very edge as a stack. Early drawings show the stack with an arch extending from its base, which has since been swept away, from hence it gets its name since it looked like a bent old man.
The island of Hoy is the second largest of the Orkney archipelago, just off the Orkney mainland and is said to have got its name from the old norse meaning high island as it is the only island in the chain to have any high land with the highest point being Ward Hill at 479m.
Hoy can be reached from Stomness (foot passengers only) or from Houton a couple of miles east if you are wanting to take your car. Personally if you do have a car it can be worth taking unless you are prepared for a lot of walking as public transport is scarce. The village of Rackwick is the usual starting off point for a 3 mile walk to the cliffs facing the sea stack itself. This is a really beautiful walk and since there are not roads out to the Old Man of Hoy it is necessary if you want to see the stack. I was told to give 3 hours for the walk there and back but I would not count myself as at all fit (and I'm asthmatic) and it took around 45 minutes each way. The walk is really beautiful as at the start there is a bit of a scramble up one of the hills near a cliff edge and then stunning views over the island, beach and across to the rest of the Orkneys. I was there on a sunny summer day but there is still a feeling of wild remoteness as you realise that there is nothing east until you hit Canada and very little to the north.
The start of the walk is by far the hardest as from there it is a well constructed footpath winding around the edge of the cliffs before cutting across to the cliffs that face the stack. The path I felt took away from some of the fun of the walk but it does mean that almost anyone can go to see the Old Man-I saw a number of young families and older people on the trail. Approaching the seastack is quite spectacular as you creep up to peer over the edge at the raging sea below (as I said I was there on a sunny day and still the sea seemed very powerful bashing against the cliffs). The stack itself can seem solid and vulnerable at the same time as this huge piece of rock looks so huge and immoveable yet is also quite visibly crumbing in some places as the weather and sea take their toll. Seeing sea birds circle around below you and flying back and forward from the island out to the stack is quite an unusual feeling. The colours are wonderful also as the cliffs and stack are a brilliant red sandstone against the greens and purple of the grass and heather.
The Old Man of Hoy is a famous climbing destination since the first ascent in 1966 by Chris Bonnigton and others (I am too young but my mum remembers this as a major television event!) and has a few different routes of varying difficulties. A RAF logbook is buried under a cairn at the top to log successful climbs. When I visited the site a few months ago there were a pair climbing up the stack which was mesmerising to watch-even standing on the cliff looking over at them was enough to give me vertigo but I'm sure many experienced climbers would love to try it. Just check out all usual information for climbing and also as I've been told that the climb is illegal now because of the instability of the stack it should be worth looking into this also.
Apparently there are indications that the stack may collapse relatively soon as natural erosion takes its toll so it may be worth going to see it sooner rather than later! Overall this is quite an unusual site and shows the power of nature in all its glory whilst simultaneously being in a beuatiful setting that would make a glorious walk even without the Old Man at the end-well worth the effort!