The Cafes of Yamba

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We neither surf nor fish but it has become a tradition for us to pack dogs, kids and way too much gear, and head down to Angourie for school holidays. We rent a place for a week or two and recharge our batteries basking in the glorious natural beauty of the Clarence river estuary. Over the years, we have tried and tested many of the cafes in town and on this trip, I have decided to share my well-caffeinated knowledge. This is my personal selection of Yamba delights.

Beachwood café

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Sevtap Yuce is the diva of Yamba’s cafes: with her excellent food and trademark red lipstick, she has been feeding locals and travellers alike for many years. She cooks with “off the trawler” fresh ingredients and distinctive Turkish flavours and serves her meals on white tables with luscious bunches of rambling roses. We have at least one brunch at her place every time we come. On this trip, my favourite was her poached quince on a bird’s nest of shredded pastry accompanied by organic yoghurt, pistachio nuts, rosewater syrup and dots of rosella jam. Sensational! Her cookbooks are good too: beautifully produced and full of well-tested recipes. We have her “Turkish Flavours” at home and yoghurt-based cakes and baked eggplant with chicken have become part of our repertoire.

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Beachwood café
Sevtap Yuce
22 High St, Yamba, 2464
www.beachwoodcafe.com.au
T. 02. 6646 9781

Barbaresco

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The best place to eat in Yamba is not – technically – in town: “Barbaresco” is nestled in the heart of the surf enclave of Angourie, just out of town and it is the brainchild of Tourinese chef Davide and maître de Adrienne. Good service and proper northern Italian food makes for a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience. We had beef carpaccio with truffle oil, pine nuts and shaved parmesan and char grilled Yamba prawns, pumpkin veloute and crispy leaks for starters. My wife’s sirloin stake with green peppercorn jus and polenta chips was great and I was tossing up whether to try the osso buco or the pappardelle with braised veal and porcini mushrooms but was stirred away by the special of pork rib-eye with baked apples, potatoes, pancetta and red wine reduction. A bottle of Ornellaia Le Volte Sangiovese and a bowl of shoe-string chips with parmesan and truffle oil tidied us over. Excellent food and generous portions meant no pudding although the panna cotta did look pretty yummy. Highly recommended.

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Barbaresco Kitchen Angourie
Adrienne Smith & Davide Adorno
12-13/16 The Crescent, Angourie 2464
kitchen@bar-baresco.com.au
www.bar-baresco.com.au
T. 02. 6646 3745

Pacific Hotel

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If you are not walking on the breakwater, the best place to enjoy the sunset is from the balcony of the Pacific Hotel. Perched high behind main beach, the Pacific Hotel is the perfect spot to welcome a new evening, watching the fishing boats go out to sea, while enjoying a pint and the company of your loved one.

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Pacific Hotel
18 Pilot St, Yamba NSW 2464, Australia
T. 02. 6646 2466
www.pacifichotelyamba.com.au

Leche café

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When I want excellent food but I am not in the mood for a Turkish treat, I head for Leche: a well-run establishment, which supports visual and musical local artists. The food is fresh, healthy and flavorsome and the back garden is perfect, if you are traveling with young ones (or listening to a gig, in summer). On this trip, we had roast chicken with caramelized baby carrots and oranges in a bed of mash beetroot as well as homemade bake beans with crispy bacon and poached egg and both dishes were truly delicious. Our best café meal this trip.

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Leche Café
Clare and Zac
27 Coldstream St, Yamba, 2464
www.facebook.com/lechecafeyamba
Closed Tuesdays

Irons and Craig

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One could be excused for feeling intimidated by Irons and Craig’s vibe: Chet Faker on the sound system, when I last visited & blistering cool, pristine 50s décor… But the food is good and the service is friendly so, what is there to be scared of? We had piping hot pumpkin soup and pulled pork sandwiches with home-made hollandaise sauce on this occasion and both were excellent.

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Irons and Craig
29 Coldstream St, Yamba, 2464
www.ironsandcraig.com
T. 02. 6646 1258

Bean Scene café

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The Bean Scene is an excellent spot for afternoon tea: the service is prompt and unobtrusive, the atmosphere relaxed, the wi-fi connection is fast and the food is well-executed traditional Australian fare. I had green tea and carrot cake on my visit and both were perfect. I sat in peace with my computer for a good 40 minutes and really enjoyed being there.

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Bean Scene café
Kane
4/8 Yamba St, Yamba, 2464
T. 02. 6646 2619

Yum Yum Angourie Store

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If you are a surfer or are traveling with young kids, the Angourie store is for you: it makes good coffee from as early as 7am and sits next to some of the most beautiful beaches on the NSW coast. Chris and Morgan have given the old store a facelift: they still stock surf-life essentials but have added beautifully presented fresh produce, flowers, jars of treats for the kids and colorful crockery.
The jam drops we tried were melt-in-your-mouth buttery and the raw hazelnut mousse was surprisingly good. Controversially, they have swapped the traditional recipe for fluffy pancakes for a more modern crepe-style one. Have a try and see what you think.

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Yum Yum Angourie Store
Chris & Morgs
17 The Crescent, Angourie, 2464
angouriestore@gmail.com
T. 02. 6646 2467

Sassafras

Sassafras is a well-run and friendly family restaurant. Great spot, if you are traveling with children. Book in advance: it is popular.

Sassafras
Pasta and Pizza Restaurant
Yamba 2464
www.sassafrasyamba.com.au
T. 02. 6646 1011

Thai Payu Restaurant

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The best take-away we have found in Yamba is from Thai Payu, which serves fresh and consistently good Thai food year in and year out. We get dinner from them at least a couple of times a week, while on holiday.

Thai Payu Restaurant
From 4.30pm. Dinner Tue to Sun (open 7 days during holidays)
3/18 Coldstream St, Yamba, 2464
T. 02. 6646 9156

Palmers Store

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Don’t head out of town without stopping for supplies at the Palmers Store, which stocks a carefully edited selection of plonk, treats from near and far and makes excellent brownies and damn good coffee.
Having watched the owner rolling pastry at the back of the store, we shopped a picnic for our pilgrimage to Lawrence (we go every year for a ride across the Clarence on the car ferry) and cleaned up the Palmers store pies in no time. The spicy pork pasties were particularly scrumptious.

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Palmers Store
1078 Yamba Rd, Palmers Island, 2464
T. 02. 6646 7741

Belinda’s

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OK, Belinda’s is not a café but it is worth a mention anyway. Belinda’s is a beautifully curated independent ladies’ clothes store. If you are traveling with your better half or are in the market for a gift, drop in: in an era where EVERYTHING is on our internet shop shelf, having someone’s good taste selecting just a few items is a refreshing experience.

Belinda’s Store
24 High Street
Yamba NSW 2464
Phone: 02 6646 8466
http://belindasstore.com/

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Maurizio Viani
www.thepocketroad.com

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Byron Bay Bluesfest on a Shoestring


The Bluesfest is one of Australia’s biggest music festivals; it takes place every year over the Easter weekend and is a showcase for many Australian and international musicians at various stages of their fame Bell curve. Thousand of visitors stomping on the soggy ground of Byron Bay floodplain – like cattle crowded in a small pen – quickly turn the site into a mud bath. Singers come and go; mud is the mainstay.

It has become a tradition for my friend Geoff and I to go to the festival’s closing night and this year, I carried a camera with me. I am a keen portrait photographer but I am often too shy to ask strangers for permission and too well brought-up to snap without it. The solution to my ethical conundrum revealed itself almost immediately upon entering the venue: people’s feet kept catching my attention. Whether clad in Wellington boots, shoes, thongs and plastic bags or braving the elements bare, they looked colourful, dirty and rather striking. They quickly became the main subject of my photographs so I decided to take a leaf out of the Sartorialist’s book and produce a fashion parade of sorts. The following gallery is my downcast Bluesfest photo diary. Perhaps not as classy as the New York dress code shots on the Sartorialist, but way more fun.

On the day, the only exceptions to my foot fetish were Grace Jones, whom – being on stage – was treated as fair game, and Serge, whose handsome speckled grin might look out of place amongst my Achilles’ heels parade. Having spotted him mud body-surfing at the end of a concert, I asked to take his picture. Elated and caked in mud head to toe, he was a sight too good to be missed.


Maurizio Viani

www.thepocketroad.com




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The Road Trip to Taiwan Camp

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Fu and I on the Jumping Pillow


After the first hour’s drive south, the manicured macadamia orchards perched on Bangalow’s posh hills with ocean views gave way to the sugarcane plantations that inhabit the floodplain. The cane fields are interspersed with farmhouses: beautiful old weatherboard Queenslanders and Federation houses mixed with the occasional brick number from the sixties. A legacy of my fellow countrymen – I guess – emigrated here one or more generations ago. We were driving away from Byron Bay’s sub-tropical paradise heading towards Norah Head, just south of Newcastle on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

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The Coast of New South Wales, Australia

The roadwork around Ballina slowed us down but kept our 3-year-old mesmerised for a good hour. What is it with boys and big machines? The grandly named 1,000 kilometres long Pacific Highway, which connects Sydney to Brisbane and which is – for a substantial part – still just a glorified country road dissecting towns and villages is bit by bit being rebuilt. The traffic from the largest city in the country to its fastest growing area: the shapeless urban sprawl that goes under the generic name of Gold Coast, in South East Queensland, demands a better road and the state – in fits and turns and in a piecemeal fashion – is slowly providing it.

We stopped for lunch in Grafton, which brought memories of a previous trip: the last time we were in town we arrived ravenous on a Sunday afternoon. The town was sun-bleached and shut and we ended up lunching on the only thing we could find: diet coke and warm cardboard, advertised as toasted sandwiches. This time, we head to South Grafton on a whim and stumble upon the cool oasis of the Australian Hotel, which has a great bistro: the staff are friendly, the room air-conditioned, the other patrons mainly locals. We ordered fillet mignon, which came wrapped in bacon, accompanied by salad and chips and cooked to perfection. Delicious.

After lunch, we got back on the road for more: “spot the big digger” games, kids’ music (thank the Lord for the Curly Cousins!) and plain, boring driving. Only the bridges provided welcome distractions: to reach our destination we had to cross the many watercourses of the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales: the Richmond, the Clarence, the Bellinger, the Nambucca, the Macleay and the Hastings river. All majestically twisting themselves to sea.

Many of the cars we passed had stickers on them. In this part of the world, it has become fashionable to put a customized sticker representing one’s family on the back of one’s car. Shops sell individual stylised figurines of men with surfboards, women ironing, kids of different ages and various types of pets. Customers arrange the figures in a line (man, woman, kids, pets is the standard procession), stick them on the back of their cars and hey pronto: they have told the world who they are. The shortest line up I have seen so far belonged to a gay car: man, man, dog; the longest I am unable to recall: the line going on and on and on off the people mover’s window and along the bumper bar. I have not seen any single person attaching his own figurine to his car; a man lifting weights, which is one of the most popular male images, might make its owner appear like a bit of a loser, if displayed alone. It slightly depressed me, seeing all these squiggles on cars: I thought: “Come on! You are human; you can express yourself creatively without the dumb sticker. You can do better!”; then I started noticing the personalised number plates and came to the conclusion that you can do a lot worse too…

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UWISH

In mid-afternoon we abandoned the Pacific Highway for the coast. We drove through fifteen kilometres of idyllic dairy countryside and lush Australian bush to reach the village of Arakoon: a few houses set deep in the woods and a caravan park. Arakoon is – according to the tourist notes in our cabin – aboriginal for: “echo from a hardwood parrying shield”. Our overnight stop was the Trial Bay Eco Holiday Park, near South West Rocks. We arrived there to find kangaroos grazing on its grounds. Wild dogs have wiped the wallabies out of our little home valley so this is my son’s introduction to the Australian icon. He is suitably impressed. We swam in the pool, jumped on the inflatable pillow, took pictures of the kookaburra heavily hinting for food on our veranda, ate and went to bed.

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Kookaburra

Trial Bay owes its name to the brigantine “Trial”, seized on13th September 1813 – with its crew and passengers – by escaped convicts while at anchor in Sydney’s Watson’s Bay. Commander White, which led the search mission on board of the “Lady Nelson”, found the shipwreck’s remains on the sands of Trial Bay in 1817.  No sign of survivors. On that expedition, he also found (and fixed the latitude of) the entrance of the river first called “Wright”, then “Trial”, then “New” and eventually – as it is known today – the Macleay River.

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Trial Bay

In the morning we dutifully sat behind the wheel and got going again. The road cut a thin ribbon of “civilization” through the Eucalyptus and Banksia scrub. The tall Australian sky arched above us. I never tire of marvelling at the Australian sky and I can never find a decent comparison: the Dutch sky, maybe or the ether above Norfolk’s beaches but neither really is a match.

Our last leg of driving was tiring but thankfully uneventful: we stopped over for lunch at the cool and colourful Greenhouse Cottage in Nabiac, another lucky find: coffee was good and so was the Caesar salad with grilled prawns: fresh and delicious apart from the dressing, which tasted supermarket-bought. Before Raymond Terrace, where we once broke down, we stopped for petrol at a papier-mache’ replica of Uluru. Like the other artificial landmarks we passed on our way: Ballina’s Big Prawn and Coffs Harbour’s Big Banana (70s attempts to put their respective towns on the map luring the passing tourists with a photo opportunity), is looking washed out and a bit desperate.

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The Greenhouse Cottage, Nabiac

Old friends from that city took us to Newcastle beach for coffee, gelato and a quick swim at the art deco ocean baths then – having travelled for two days and eight-hundred kilometres – we finally arrived at Norah Head Holiday Park: our destination.

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Newcastle Ocean Pool

Once a year, thirty Australian families with maybe fifty Taiwanese adopted children aged between one and twenty congregate in this quintessentially Aussie caravan park for the most Australian of ceremonies: The Sausage Sizzle. For a weekend we take the place by storm: Taiwanese kids running, jumping, swimming, cycling everywhere. Once a year, our mixed-race families become the majority: the norm. Well worth the trip.

Maurizio Viani

www.thepocketroad.com

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South West Rocks


Australian Hotel: 51 Thorough St, South Grafton, NSW 2460; www.australianhotelgrafton.com.au; email: australianhotelsouth@bigpond.com; T. +61.2.6642 2275; T&Fax: +61.2.6642 1566 [fillet steak lunch for two: A$50 + drinks]

Trial Bay Eco Holiday Park: 161 Phillip Drive, South West Rocks, NSW 2431; T. +61.2. 6566 6142; Fax: +61.2. 6566 6722; http://www.trialbay.com.au/; email: info@trialbay.com.au [overnight cabin hire for two adults and a child: A$160]

Greenhouse Cottage: 72 Clarkson St, Nabiac, NSW 2312; T. +61.2. 6554 1944; email: Bundillapark@optusnet.com.au [lunch for two approximately A$45 including soft drinks]

Norah Head Holiday Park: Victoria St, Norah Head, NSW 2263; www.cchp.com.au; email: norah@cchp.com.au; T. +61.2. 4396 3935; Fax: +61.2. 4397 1285 [overnight cabin hire for two adults and a child: A$126]

Estabar: Shop 1/61 Shortland Esplanade, Newcastle Beach, NSW 2300; T. +61.2. 4927 1222

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South West Rocks

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Fridge Magnets, Greenhouse Cottage Cafe’

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Ocean Baths, Newcastle Beach

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Caravan, Norah Head Holiday Park

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Doorbell, Norah Head Holiday Park

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Caravan, Norah Head Holiday Park


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A Gelato Adventure in Modena


Gelato - Coppette

Gelato – Coppette

Going back home is never easy for me: I dread the procession of relatives dropping in and talking nonsense non-stop for interminable hours; worry about the long-lost friends whom I have grown apart from and don’t know how to be with anymore; I am scared of the local drivers, who behave like space invaders in a videogame, plays chicken with the rest of the traffic and misses you by a split hair at the very last moment… or not, as it often happens; and I hate the ubiquitous commercial radio, which machine-guns ads at you in every common space on the land: shops, car parks, cafes, the pool, toilets, gyms, pizzerias, romantic restaurants… My countrymen seem frightened of silence and chase it away with sheer determination.

But then there is gelato, and all of a sudden thirty hours on a plane spent entertaining my toddler son seem worth it. If you ever find yourself in uncharted waters and need to test an ice cream parlour, order a scoop of “stracciatella”, you’ll be able to assess whether the place uses the best quality cream and whether or not it bestows chocolate chips with largesse, which are what – to my mind – makes or breaks a “gelateria”. When in Modena, thankfully I know where to go: I might have been away for twenty years but when it comes to gelato, I am still a local. I grew up in suburban Casinalbo, eight kilometers out of town and one of the happiest memories from my youth was getting a driving license and finally being able to drive away from the goddamn place. It is an unremarkable sleepy village that can drive a teenager up the wall but it does have one key attraction: the best gelato I have ever tasted. My wife calls it: “Terminal Illness Gelato” because, if she ever gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, she wants to be wheeled there and spend the last months of her life happily gorging herself. The business trades under the somewhat less dramatic and to the point name of:  “Gelateria Ice Cream” and is the main reason why the town’s shopping arcade is always buzzing. It opens at 8.30 in the morning and shuts at around 1am and it is so busy that they have recently installed a crowd management system to keep the happy customers flowing smoothly in and out of the place. During our visit, we went there at least once a day and on Sundays we bought an extra kilo to stock the freezer up (Monday is their rest day). Hot flavours during this trip were: “mandorla tostata”, “torta di riso”, “bensone” (a local eggy cake), “mascarpone” (think tiramisu without coffee, liqueur or Pavesini biscuits). Apricots and cherries were in season so “yoghurt with albicocche” and “yoghurt with amarene” (sour cherries) where both particularly delicious and so was “lampone” (raspberries): wonderfully refreshing in the heat of summer. Classics like “bacio” (chocolate and hazelnut), stracciatella and chocolate were as good as ever.

The other gelato outfit worth sampling is K2 in Corso Canalgrande: right in the heart of Modena. It is an institution and – before “Terminal Illness Gelato” opened – it sold the best ice cream in town. On this visit, the flavour-sensation from K2 was “granellato all’amarena”: vanilla ice cream with sour cherries and crushed caramelized nuts, perhaps an homage to the historic “cornetto Algida” and definitely an inspired addition to the menu.


Modena - Rua Pioppa

Modena – Rua Pioppa

Quite apart from gelato, if you happen to be in Modena eating out can also be a rather rewarding occupation. Whenever I go, I conveniently forget my vegetarian tendencies and order from the traditional menu, which is based on pork, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and homemade pasta. Here is my personal Summer 2010 directory of where to eat in and around the city, the result of three weeks of intense research:

My favorite café in town is “Caffe’ dell’Orologio”, whose tables take over the tiny Piazzetta delle Ova between Via Emilia and Piazza Grande. Whether for a morning coffee or a late afternoon aperitif, the service is consistently courteous and the drinks just perfect. I have a soft spot for Caffe’ dell’Orologio because our wedding guests gathered there the day after the ceremony for a communal brunch. We had such a lovely and relaxed time that twelve years later I still remember the place with a warm heart. For an aperitif accompanied by a buffet of canapés, Caffe’ Concerto, in Piazza Grande has become quite popular. The location is spectacular and the nibbles are not bad but service can be spotty so have a feel for the atmosphere before you sit down and decide if Caffe’ Concerto is right for you.

Two other excellent cafes in the centre of town are the Bar Pasticceria Remondini, an old fashioned, proper and very good patisserie right in front of Palazzo Ducale (or Accademia, how it has been called ever since it became home to the Italian army’s cadet school); and the more modern and excellently run Mon Café in Corso Canalchiaro, whose air-conditioned welcoming rooms gave us much needed reprise from the dreaded “afa”: a nasty combination of heat and humidity that dogs many a Modenese summer day.

Modena – Portici

Our most scrumptious meal in the city was at Zelmira’s, which we booked after much deliberation for a welcome dinner for friends visiting from England. We considered but shunned the El-Bulli-lookalike La Francescana, which sounded like an over-processed and expensive fad and opted instead for Zelmira, which is a local culinary institution, set in a small – almost private – square in the historic centre of town and is known for the consistent high quality of its fare. When the waitress came with the specials, she recited the long list of ingredients so fast that it was impossible to translate them all. It all got a bit confusing so we pretty much stuck with the printed menu, which was lovely and enticing. I stayed on the “cucina creativa” (nouvelle cuisine) side of the menu not because I didn’t trust their Modenese dishes but because I had been dining at mum’s for a week already and I needed a break from the traditional stuff. We ordered Culatello e fichi (cured ham and figs) and pancetta-wrapped capesante (scallops) for starters and Argentinean steak with black summer truffle and pork fillet on a bed of celeriac mash as mains with sides of “tropea al balsmico” (sweet and sour onions caramelized in balsamic vinegar). It was all pretty delicious and the inexpensive bottle of extra dry Prosecco proved so drinkable that we ordered a second one of the same. The evening was boiling hot but the fans (and the bubbly) made dining al fresco in San Giacomo’s square a rather civilized experience. We skipped dessert and opted for a stroll through town designed to take us to K2, the aforementioned second-best ice cream parlor in the province. Our friend Anna shouted us a few generous “coppette” which proved the perfect ending to our evening (dinner for two: approximately 120 euro + tip).

In an attempt to escape the heat of summer, we ran to the hills often. One of our favorite destinations was Castelvetro, the medieval village surrounded by vineyards where my mum was born and where my wife and I got married. Castelvetro is only 20Km away and only marginally fresher than Modena but it is a lovely spot and offers a few notable foody options, which makes it is an appealing destination in all weather conditions.

Castelvetro – Piazza

The best place in the old settlement is the Locanda del Feudo, a charming boutique hotel (six suites only) whose restaurant is open to the public. We dined there (al fresco again, which meant on a cobbled street closed to the traffic) and enjoyed delicious food and impeccable service. We had “carpaccio di filetto di manzo con tartufo e salsa all’aglio ghiacciata” (beef carpaccio with black truffle) and “tortino di pecorino di Fossa e pepe bianco su crema di salsiccia e cicoria croccante” (sheep milk cheese and white pepper savory cake with sausage sauce and chicory) for starters and “bistecca di vitello impanata con marmellata di tropea e saba” (veal schnitzel with onions caramelized in reduced grape juice) and “tortelli ripieni di salame rosa e patate su crema di parmigiano e tartufo nero scorzone” (parcel pasta filled with salami and potatoes dressed with cream, Parmesan cheese and black truffle –not even mum can make them that good…yum!). For dessert, we had rum baba and coffee ice cream cannoli. We thoroughly enjoyed their basket of homemade breads (especially the grissini and Parmesan cheese snails) and we loved the bottle of local “champagne”: spumante classico metodo tradizionale Francesco Bellei from Bomporto made with Pinot Noir grapes from Serra Mazzoni (dinner for two: 100 euros + tip).

Castelvetro – Chiesa Parrocchiale

If you find yourself in Castelvetro and Locanda del Feudo is fully booked, don’t be tempted by the charming garden setting of La Mandragola: the chef is unconfident, the service is not that obliging, the mosquitoes are vicious and despite all that, dinner for two will set you back 93 euros + tip! Go instead to L’Eglise Café, which is a newly opened excellent café by day and an unpretentious restaurant by night whose tables by the church square (as the name might have given away) attract many a group of locals in the market for an informal dinner. Your other option is Villabianca, a trattoria perched on one of the hills around Castelvetro (Villabianca is on Google Maps and is only five Kilometers away): the décor is Spartan, the view lovely and the menu as traditional as it gets: homemade parcel pasta (the nettle tortelloni in sausage and cream ragout that we had were excellent!), gnocco, tigelle and borlenghi with a selection of hams, salami and fried cheese. “Gnocco” being a deep fried thin bread served still hot from the frying pan, “tigelle” being a crumpet-looking bread once cooked under the fireplace’s hot ashes – now on more practical hot plates – and “borlenghi” being a wafer-thin sort of crepe served smeared with pork lard, rosemary and grated Parmesan cheese. Homemade cakes and a series of variations on the tiramisu’ theme (plain, with chocolate, with coffee, …) complete the menu. Nocino and limoncello (digestive liqueurs) are complimentary and much needed by the end of the meal (a generous lunch for two with a chilled bottle of local lambrusco: 60 euros + tip).

Castelvetro – Via Cavedoni

If – like us – you find yourself in Castelvetro in between meals, you might want to consider a short (10km) drive to Vignola to visit its medieval fortress and sample a slice of Barozzi cake (locally renowned chocolate and coffee brownie). I rather like Vignola’s Castle: it has an impressive set of defensive walls, a moat, turrets… It simply looks the part. The visit does not take long: there are a few modestly frescoed rooms, jails, a charming chapel and a nice view from the top of the walls. The recently installed multimedia stuff though is ghastly! Throughout the castle, some ill-advised museum designer has installed loudspeakers linked to infrared sensors, which basically hunt visitors: as soon as they detect movement, they set off screechy and condescending little lessons on what is important to know and remember about the place. I found it enormously irritating and my two-year old son grew so frightened of these booming voices coming out of nowhere that we had to flee, chased away by techno-ghosts. Thankfully, by the time we left, the Pasticceria Gollini (home of Torta Barozzi) had reopened after their lunch break and all was well again…

Riolunato – Ponte della Fola

The Apennini mountains offer another opportunity to escape the soupy hot weather of the Padana plain. The mountains are fresh but require a longer drive than Castelvetro and Vignola do. We set off one morning for Riolunato, a medieval mountain village perched above the Scoltenna river. The drive was pleasant and – past Pavullo – scenic but it did take us two hours to get there and is advisable only if one enjoys a bit of mountain driving. Riolunato was the old stomping ground of Obizzo da Montegarullo, a rather belligerent feudal lord who took on more than he could chew and in 1400 ended up murdered by the Estensi Dukes of Modena. Not much remains of his castles but we managed to lunch and dine in the shadow of two of his towers. In Riolunato, we strolled the narrow village pathways and enjoyed the feel of the ancient stonewalls; we went to the river to see the old Ponte della Fola bridge and we sipped coffee in Piazza del Trebbo; had lunch at the Bar  Trattoria there, which was unpretentious and pleasant (their grilled sausage and fried sheep milk cheese wrapped in pancetta was hearty and good). In the afternoon, we drove back to the outskirts of Pavullo and dined in the wonderfully atmospheric Azienda Agrituristica Viecave set in a fortified house that dates back to the 1450s (our second Montegarullo stop), where the walls are so thick that the fireplaces inside had a few ambers burning to keep the guests from shivering.

Viecave – The Tower

At Viecave there is no menu: the food is seasonal, the style is traditional and the courses just keep coming. We had gnocco fritto, tigelle, erbazzone (spinach and ricotta savory cake) and panzerotti (deep fried cheese stuffed parcels) as starters; tortelloni di zucca (parcel pasta stuffed with baked pumpkin, grated parmesan and nutmeg) and tagliatelle al sugo di coniglio (ribbon pasta in rabbit ragout: my favourite!) as first courses and barbecued meat as second. Dessert was a selection of homemade cakes (crostata al cioccolato, all’amaretto e torta di riso) that came accompanied by a tray of ristretto coffees and nocino liqueur (made out of green walnuts macerated in alcohol and sugar and aged in oak barrels)… It was another wonderful feast. If you decide to go there make sure you book (the restaurant caters only for its booked guests) and that you arrive there when it is still light: a stroll in the garden offers a delightful view of the valley and of the village of Iddiano below, which you should try not to miss (dinner for two: approximately 50 euros + tip).

Viecave – View

An hour drive on comfortable roads took us back to Modena and an interminable plane ride delivered us back to Australia, jetlagged, delighted to be back and full of determination to rejoin the gym to work off our eating safari. If I have managed to whet your appetite and you fancy a visit to my hometown check out the cathedral, which is a Romanic jewel covered in bass relieves by Wiligelmo from 1100 and consider booking into the Hotel Canalgrande, which is La Grand Dame of Modena’s hotels. It is perfectly located in the historic centre of town, has grand but somber fresco painted reception, bar and breakfast areas. Its grandeur though does not extend to the bedrooms, which are in need of some TLC… Unless you book the suite, which is a pink extravaganza affectionately named by the staff “the Claudia Schiffer suite”, after its most famous guest.

Maurizio Viani
www.thepocketroad.com

Riolunato – Tabernacolo

Name Address Phone Weekly closing Website Email
Gelateria Ice Cream Via Pietro Nenni, 13, Centro Commerciale, Casinalbo (MO) +39.059.551301 Monday
Gelateria K2 Corso Canalgrande, 67, Modena +39.059.219181
Caffe’ dell’Orologio Piazzetta delle Ova +39.335.5352025 Tuesday
Caffe’ Concerto Piazza Grande, 26, Modena +39.059.222232 www.caffeconcertomodena.com
Bar Pasticceria A. Remondini Piazzale S. Giorgio, 99, Modena +39.059.222353
Mon Café Corso Canalchiaro, 128, Modena +39.059.223257 www.mon-café.it caffetteria@mon-café.it
Ristorante Zelmira Piazzetta San Giacomo, 17, Modena +39.059.222351 Lunchtime Thursday and Friday ristorantezelmira@hotmail.it
La Locanda del Feudo Via Trasversale, 2, Castelvetro (MO) +39.059.708711 Sunday evening and Monday all day www.locandadelfeudo.it info@locandadelfeudo.it
L’Eglise Café Via Tasso, 9/11, Castelvetro (MO) +39.059.790489 Tuesday www.eglisecafe.com info@eglise.com
Osteria Bar Villabianca Villabianca di Marano Sul Panaro +39.059.793311 Monday www.trattoriavillabianca.it

www.villabiancadimodena.org La Rocca di VignolaPiazza dei Contrari, 4, Vignola+39.059.775246Mondaywww.fondazionedivignola.itrocca@fondazionedivignola.itPasticceria GolliniVia Garibaldi, 1, Vignola+39.059.771079 www.tortabarozzi.itinfo@tortabarozzi.itAzienda Agrituristica ViecaveLocalita’ Viecave (near Crocette and Benedello), Pavullo nel Frignano (MO)+39.0536.20836

+39.0536.22511Booking essential!  Hotel CanalgrandeCorso Canalgrande, 6, Modena+39.059.217160 www.canalgrandehotel.itinfo@canalgrandehotel.it

This was such a lovely feedback that I had to put it on. Thank you so much Jas:
Message Body:
I read your article on culinary pleasures in Modena.I traveled to Modena with my family purely because of your article and loved zemira restaurant. Probably the best meal we had in Italy… We had the modern menu. The highlight of my three weeks was gelateria ice cream…it took me an hour to find but I was so blown away with the gelato and we had tasted a lot during our travels! I sat there for a hour eating gelato with my two sons and wife.Without doubt the best gelato in the world… I will go back before I die! I shared how I had found the gelateria with the lady running the show and expressed how impressed I was with her product. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and creating a life time experience for my family and I. If you are ever in Vegas let me know and I can try to show you a special experience here.

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A Tree-changer-dad’s Guide to Brunswick Heads

Michael surfing at Brunswick Heads

Michael surfing at Brunswick Heads

On this Friday afternoon, the air smells of salty hot chips. Several families are having picnics by the river and the occasional kid in zinc war-paint and boogie board whizzes past you on a squat acrobatic bicycle, on his way to the last surf before dusk. The colony of cockatoos that inhabits town is noisily getting ready to roost on their fig tree and when the band at the Brunswick Hotel fills the air with its tunes, you know that the weekend has started in earnest.

Brunswick River

Brunswick River

I moved to the Brunswick valley a year and a half ago from Sydney (and Modena, Italy – where I was born via London, where I worked and fell in love). My wife Lisa and I wanted to live close to friends and family while raising our baby so I resigned from my banking job, we packed our house and moved North. Such a CV makes me a “tree-changer”, of which there are many in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. At the ‘meet the neighbours’ tea party we dutifully organised, one of them mentioned that the people across the road were also a couple of bankers: “Lovely…until they went heavily into drugs”. A remark I found half funny, half ominous.

Having a child to entertain, I find myself driving into Brunswick Heads every day. The town is charming, calm, situated in a spot of extraordinary natural beauty and has a lot to offer to a dad-and-son team in the market for some fun.

Coffee

Babycino in Brunswick Heads

Babycino in Brunswick Heads

If (like me) you are neither a surfer nor a fisherman, the thing to do in Brunswick Heads is to have coffee. The large block that makes up the centre of town is graced by six coffee shops; not counting the gelato parlours and the health food shop, which can also brew you a cup. Despite being Italian, my caffeine addiction is not strong enough to take care of all six of them so I patronize the four that face the river reserve. The Riverside Espresso Bar (T) is spacious, sells a few local goodies and its staff is consistently kind despite the mess they know my son makes while having lunch. This is my favourite spot in town and I hang out here most days. Cino Bambino (T) is a small outfit run by a charming Melbourne couple with a chubby adorable toddler son called Charlie. Their kid friendliness – as the name might suggest – is unflinching; so much so that they managed to squeeze a playpen onto their premises. They sell a small but well-chosen selection of funky child paraphernalia and they give you a tiny teddy biscuit with your coffee, which is a fun plus for everyone, even if they don’t have children. The Happy Dolphin Café (T) is more aloof. I go there occasionally for take-away flat whites on my way to the playground. One of their waiters has his arms covered in the most extraordinary tattoos. I once asked whether he had designed them himself and what they represented and he said that they were a reminder of “stuff” that had happened to him. The exchange was awkward so I paid him sincere compliments on the amazing colours and enquired no more. He must have appreciated my comments because he now greets me as “matey”, when I approach the counter. The new kid on the block is Sandbar (T); proprietor Katie Bassett is local café royalty: her family ran the Pass Café in Byron Bay for years and her brother Paul was crowned 2003 world’s barista champion! Sandbar offers a warm and sunny welcome and is a lovely place where to fritter away an afternoon.

Kids Activities

Across the street from the cafes, the town’s playground follows the river’s bend. The reserve has a magnificent row of Norfolk pines that shade the swings from the morning sun, making it a pleasant spot to entertain small children even on a hot summer day. Another good kids’ hangout in town is Torakina Beach, which is a small, sandy inlet just inside the river’s estuary. If you go there at high tide, you can swim in crystal clear ocean water without having to worry about the surf.

If you are travelling with older children (or fancy a paddle yourself), you can organize a guided kayak tour of the Brunswick River with Michael Hogg (T). I took my Italian relatives downstream from Mullumbimy to Brunswick Heads and we all had a great time, including my 71-year old mum, who was at first a bit sceptical about the whole enterprise… Alternatively, you can hire a canoe from the town’s pirate (T), whose red galleon is anchored near the road bridge. I often see him sailing in in the morning on a tin dingy with his Staffordshire terrier standing proudly at the bow of the vessel and sometimes wonder whether he sleeps on a mother ship anchored somewhere in deep ocean waters. If you hire a canoe and arrange your own paddle, make sure to avoid low tide or you’ll risk having to get out often to push your boat off the many sandbars. You guessed right: I speak from experience.

Where to Eat

The best spot to grab a bite in Brunswick Heads is Yami’s (T), which sells excellent falafel plates and has tables on a pleasant shaded terrace. Fish and chips are another option. The town boasts two fish and chips outlets (the Starfish and the Fish Bar); take your pick, they are both good (but not as good as Mongers (T) in Byron Bay). If you are looking for fine dining, you’ll have to drive out of town, though. The best restaurant in the area is La Table (T), where French chef Bruno Pouget cooks traditional French fare using local ingredients with outstanding results. Go there on a Thursday night for the best bouillabaisse below the equator and make sure you book in advance. If Lisa and I score a babysitter on a Sunday evening, when La Table is shut, we go to Olivo (T) in Byron Bay, which offers modern Australian food with more than a hint of Italian-style cuisine. Last time I went I ordered twice baked gruyere soufflé, oxtail potato gnocchi and hazelnut meringue with caramelized quince…yum!

Bruno teaching French cuisine at New Brighton Farmers' Market

Bruno teaching French cuisine at New Brighton Farmers’ Market

The health food shops in both Brunswick and Mullumbimby sell nourishing –if a touch bland – vegetarian fare. For delicious lunches, go to Café Lulu’s (T) in Mullumbimby, where chef Linda knows how to cook mouth-watering vegetarian meals. My regular order is either a tofu burger or a warm quinoa salad and if I get there after twelve, I religiously check the specials’ board for a treat. Lulu’s is also an excellent spot for people-watching so take your time and stay for coffee and cake too. If you happen to be in Mullumbimby in the morning and need a sugar fix, go to La Table café (next door to La Table restaurant) and order coffee and a Danish. Paul, the pastry chef, bakes them on premise daily and they are the best I have had since September 2003, when I checked out of the Metropole Hotel; La Grand Dame of the Hanoi hotels, which still bakes pastries that are as good as French.

The best wood fired pizza I have tasted in Australia is at Milk and Honey (T) in Mullumbimby. Our regular Friday night order is a medium margerita with olives and anchovies and a large mushroom. If you can pace yourself with pizza, leave space for dessert and order chocolate mousse; you won’t regret it. If you are missing a Thai meal, Billi’s Thai (T) in Billinudgel is just a five minutes’ drive out of town. They do a good pad thai and tasty stir-fries but I find their curries a bit watery. The best curries in the area are at Spice It Up (T) at Mullumbimby golf club, which is a fifteen minute drive from Brunswick.

And More

There is a lot more you can do in the Brunswick Valley if you have extra time. Drive through the national parks and historic villages that pepper the area, visit the Murwillumbah Art Gallery for the art and for the view or go to Crystal Castle: a new age theme park with the widest choice of fancy rocks you can imagine, or get swimming lessons for your kids from surfing legend Gary “Kong” Elkerton. I received a voucher for a hot air balloon flight on my last birthday – I might do that next and then write about it. Stay tuned!

Maurizio Viani

Historic Outline

The Brunswick river was first spotted by Western eyes in 1828, when Captain Rous named it in honour of Caroline of Brunswick, King George IV’s dead German Queen. By 1840, tree cutters had started arriving in the area stripping The Big Scrub (a forest that covered the whole of the Northern Rivers region) of its red cedars. From Brunswick Heads, one can still drive into Mullumbimby following what was the first track inland built by the tree cutters (now Saddle Road and McAuley St). The road is narrow and in parts unsealed but offers wonderful views of the valleys below.

There has been a general store in Brunswick Heads since 1880 and a pub – the 14-room Ocean View Hotel – since 1884. By the end of the nineteenth century, Matthew Devine operated a punt across the river in the spot where the Pacific Highway now crosses on a bridge that carries Matthew’s name. If you drive into town using the Brunswick Valley Way, you’ll cross the river on the Durrumbul bridge, named after the aboriginal word for the native water rat inhabiting the valley. A squat hill by the river’s estuary has an outline similar to the rat’s and the landmark gave the aboriginal name to the area.

The river became the docking point for ships carrying supplies to the new settlements in the area but the estuary was so treacherous that, between 1866 and 1898, the “Brothers”, “Francis George”, “Star of the Seas”, “Eva Maud”, “Titanic”, “Nambucca”, “Brilliant”, “Brunswick”, “Dolphin”, “Lizzie Frost”, “Agnes”, “Annie C. Lynn”, “Endeavour” and “Cairo”, all shipwrecked in their attempt to sail through the heads. Brunswick Heads’ loggers lobbied the local government for a breakwater at the river’s mouth but lost to another infrastructure project: the Byron Bay jetty, which since 1895 provided a safe docking facility to the ships serving the cedar route. You can still see a few stumps emerging from the waters to the left of Main Beach in Byron. That is all 1974’s Cyclone Pam left of the jetty and of the twenty-two fishing boats that the townsmen had lifted “to safety” over it. Only Leicester Phillip’s boat, which was too big to be dragged over the pier, survived Pam’s wrath by sailing into the Brunswick river before the storm hit.

In 1894, a rail line opened between Lismore and Murwillumbah, “from nowhere to nowhere”, the critics called it – and Brunswick Heads found itself cut off when a couple of land speculators successfully twisted the line away from the coast and through the newly established village of Mullumbimby. The lack of transport infrastructure hindered the town’s economy but a coach service from Mullumbimby allowed Brunswick Heads to develop into a tourist destination. In 1937, the footbridge over the river was built to facilitate access to the beach and in the sixties, a road bridge was built originally to transport materials for the construction of the breakwater.

By the end of the 1960s, dairy and banana farming, which had been the main economic activities in the Brunswick Valley, became unprofitable and when in 1971 Hippy pioneer Colin Scattergood approached Frank Mills – who was knee deep into mud fixing fences – to buy some land, he was able to purchase 400 acres in Main Arm for $16,000. The Flower Power movement had found a home in the Northern Rivers. Nimbin’s 1973 Aquarius Festival marked the official beginning of the Hippy migration into the area, forever changing its social makeup.

Contact Details for Businesses Mentioned

Name Opening Times Address Phone
The Riverside Espresso Bar Cnr of The Terrace and Fingal St, Brunswick Heads 02. 6685 1799
Cino Bambino Shop 4, 30 Mullumbimby St, Brunswick Heads 02. 6685 0055
The Happy Dolphin Café Shop 8,

The Terrace, Brunswick Heads

02. 6685 1355
Sandbar 2 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads
Michael Hogg (kayak) 02. 6687 1833
Pirate (kayak) 0414. 300 012
Yami’s Park St, Brunswick Heads
Mongers Bay Lane, Byron Bay (Behind the Beach Hotel) 02. 6680 8080
La Table 72 Burringbar St, Mullumbimby 02. 6684 2227
Olivo 34 Jonson St,

Byron Bay

02. 6685 7950
Café Lulu’s 8 Dalley St,

Mullumbimby

02. 6684 2415
Milk and Honey Tue-Sat 5pm-9:30pm 59a Station St,

Mullumbimby

02. 6684 1422
Billi’s Thai Wed-Sun Billinudgel’s Main Street (Wilfred St) 02. 6680 3352
Spice It Up Wed-Sat Mullumbimby Golf Club 02. 6684 2273

Festivals in the Area (my selection)

Event Month Info Notes
Old & Gold June http://www.brunswickheads.org.au/brunswick/whats-on/16 Collectables to garage sales extravaganza
Kites & Bikes March http://www.brunswickheads.org.au/brunswick/whats-on/16
Woodchopping January http://www.bhwoodchop.com/
Billycart Race May (http://www.bangalowbillycart.com.au/
Bluesfest April http://www.bluesfest.com.au/ Worth the mud
Writer Festival August http://www.byronbaywritersfestival.com.au/v1/index.php
Mullum to Bruns Fun Run August http://www.mullumtobruns.org.au/about_us.html

Jemima at Old & Gold

Jemima at Old & Gold

Markets (my selection)

Day of the Month Location
1st Sat Brunswick Heads
1st Sun Byron Bay
2nd Sun The Channon
3rd Sat Mullumbimby
3rd Sun Uki
4th Sun Bangalow
5th Sun Nimbin
Every Tuesday Morning New Brighton Farmers’ Market

Internet Sources

Source Address Notes
Brunswick Heads Chamber of Commerce http://www.brunswickheads.org.au/ Good source of practical tourist information
The Echo http://www.echo.net.au/ Excellent community paper
Aquarius Festival photo exhibition http://www.rainbowdreaming.org/intro.html Hippy photo gallery

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Overnight at Melbourne Airport’s Hilton Hotel


Melbourne Airport

Melbourne Airport

Melbourne Airport is delightfully easy to be in: it is spacious, light and its terminals are just a short walk away from each other. I landed here, learned that mum’s Etihad flight was delayed, walked across the footbridge and checked into the Hilton. I had booked a room (Wotif: $240) for mum and I to stay overnight before catching a connecting flight home to the Northern Rivers region of NSW.

At concierge, Andrew welcomes me with a beaming smile and a room upgrade. Had we been in Bondi, someone with his blue eyes and good looks would have known better than smiling to a customer. The scores of aspiring models and actors working in hospitality on the most famous Australian beach know that smiling is uncool and wrong. Being in Melbourne feels different and I am suddenly pleased that my friend Daniele and his family, who are accompanying mum over from Italy, have chosen the Victorian capital as their first port of call. The city will welcome them with poise and their jam-packed holiday in Australia will start on the right footing.

The hotel room is full of natural light; it is virtually silent and fits two double beds plus a sofa and a desk in the reception area. The décor is minimalist and the bathroom has separate bath and shower. The toiletries are by Crabtree and Evelyn. The view –needless to say- is of the airport. The bottle of water on the bedside table carries a card: $6 for 600ml of Mount Franklin. I wish I had been charged $6 more for the room and given water “for free”. It feels mean, for the Hilton to charge for water and it is a lost opportunity: small acts of kindness lure a guest into feeling welcome. I once found a plate on my hotel pillow: three strawberries dipped in chocolate and a card: Microsoft welcoming Frank to their Phoenix convention. I was travelling for Deutsche Bank and I was not Frank but I enjoyed the treat immensely.

I have a couple of hours to kill before mum’s flight is due to land so I head straight to the pool for a swim and discover that there is a gym as well, which is not mentioned on the Hilton web site, which is why I have packed my goggles but not my gym gear. Bummer. I share the pool with a couple of polite kids, who play in one lane and leave me the other and, after a few laps, I realise how pleasant a time I am having.

My day had started with a brief but stressful experience: one of the horses living on the hobby farm, which is now home got stuck on a fence. Poor Gandalf bruised his leg and his confidence in the ten minutes that took me to work out that something was wrong, decide to trap my toddler son in his high chair to keep him out of trouble and find something to cut the wire with. Releasing Gandalf worked like magic: the herd ran to the furthest corner of the paddock and stood there, each animal with an expression ranging from the terrified to the bewildered; I freed my frustrated son from his improvised jail and all was well again. After a busy morning and a snoozy flight, I woke up in mid air between the clouds’ blanket and the flat countryside on a greyish afternoon. The experience felt familiar and soothing. Landing in Melbourne reminded me of doing so in England and, perhaps because I was about to see mum and meet old friends, it made me feel, in an odd sort of way, at home.

After my swim and a reconnaissance mission through the hotel’s lobby, restaurant and business centre, I walk back to the international arrival terminal and watch the customs’ sliding doors drip-feed tired travellers to the waiting crowd until Daniele’s wife appears, then mum and then the rest of the party. My friends look tired but surprisingly unchanged. Their two curly haired kids though, are approaching teenage-hood, which is an icy reminder of the passing of time and which for a second throws me off balance. Mum is tearful and well and relieved to have finally arrived.

My friends head straight for the city, while I take mum to the Hilton’s restaurant. Dinner is “crisp skin kingfish, crushed kipfler potatoes, tomato consommé, basil mousse and micro herbs” and a glass of 2008 Cape Mentelle Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, from Margaret River, WA. Mum laps it up despite her protestations of having no appetite. She is unfazed when her glass plate cries a loud, obtuse noise and splits in two. She simply carries on her long rambling monologue updating me on distant cousins, sicknesses new and old and the still flourishing web of her social life, which she is rightly proud of. Her only immediate concern: that the staff might blame her for breaking the plate (two mains and two glasses of wine: $94 plus tip –small on account of the plate incident).

A good night’s sleep and a flight back conclude my (very) short break at Melbourne airport. I leave slightly bemused at having enjoyed the experience. I feel stimulated, refreshed and ready to go back home.

Maurizio Viani

Internet Sources

Name Website
Hilton Hotel http://www1.hilton.com/en_US/hi/hotel/MELAPHI-Hilton-Melbourne-International-Airport/index.do
Melbourne Airport http://www.melbourneairport.com.au/
Wotif http://www.wotif.com/

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Speed-dating Bangkok


Bangkok

Wat Arun, Bangkok

See more Bangkok images

Nonna Iole and I escaped the dust storm that swept the East Coast of Australia and wreaked havoc on all sorts of transport just two days before our departure and arrived in Bangkok with no delay and no hassle. I accompanied my Italian mum half way home to help her change planes and I carved out a two-day mini holiday as a treat. We arrived late at night; I accompanied mum to her gate, entrusted her to a couple of fellow travellers from the northern Italian town of Cuneo (honeymooners, I guess) and I headed out.

I am staying at the mid-market Luxx Hotel (T), in the salubrious (western end) of Silom Road. I have lots to see and only two days to spare so I set my alarm clock for 5.40am and go to bed. In the morning, I scoff down an OK breakfast and I am out. The city smells of chicken gutted and cooked in the streets. Stripped of an aircon shield, I am dripping sweat within minutes. I crave another coffee and I wish that the thunderstorm the air is pregnant with, would come.

When I reach the ferry terminal, everything is murky: the sky, the river and the posh hotels dotting its banks. For a while, I lose myself watching the huge weed-rafts floating downstream, then the high-pitched whistle of the mooring attendant announces my ferry and I hop on. I tell my destination to an efficient staffer, who shakes her Hello Kitty metal change purse to announce herself to travellers and sell them tickets and a few minutes later she taps me on the shoulder to make sure I alight at the right pier.

My first stop is Pak Khlong Talat (T), the city’s twenty-four-hour flower and vegetable market. My appearance and my camera attract the locals’ attention. The only other “farang” on the scene is an American woman carrying a baby, which explains why she was up at six. I take pictures of garlic, chrysanthemums and rose bunches carefully wrapped in old newspapers, and of a lovely lime seller, who approached me with the pretext of showing off his fruit, while he is obviously hoping for a photo. I wish I could speak enough Thai to make conversation or to compliment him on his produce, at least. I don’t speak any so a smile is all I have to offer. I stop to watch women making flower garlands, cabbage being delivered, onions sold and stall holders having breakfast; some having a nap. In the drab light, the orange monks going for their alms run stand out as if neon lit. It is a moving feast in the making and a great spectacle.

Bangkok has a bad reputation for traffic so on this trip, I stick to the river and its ferries, which prove efficient, cool and rather pleasant. Travelling on water, I reach the entrance of Wat Pra Kaeo (T) in no time. The whole complex is covered in gold and mirror mosaics, which I find visually overwhelming. I love the kitsch aesthetic of Thai temples; this is what I am here for but this Wat is more than I had expected and more than I can take in. I catch my breath admiring the Ramayana murals in the relative coolness of the courtyard arcades before entering the temple of the Emerald Buddha. I kneel in front of the holiest statue in the whole of Thailand and stay for a while. I even make an attempt at meditating, which fails. I am too distracted by the room’s gaudy décor: the golden altar, the murals all around and the red and golden roof above me are all too stimulating. My eyes can’t rest and my mind can’t either. A humbling feature of my meditation practice is that whenever I endeavour to clear my mind of any thought, the most puerile ideas come to the surface. Six years ago, I spent the most part of a ten-day silent retreat making mental souvenir shopping lists. On this occasion, my synapsis all line up to form the view that, despite its grandeur, Wat Pra Kaeo is quite modest, compared to the Vatican. I entertain the thought just long enough to feel embarrassed by its banality and leave.

Once I realize that I am hot, tired and no longer enjoying being in the Grand Palace’s precinct I head out and look for the Krisa Coffee Shop (T), which is tiny, dark and – as promised by the guidebooks – air-conditioned. I order green chicken curry, spill the first coke all over myself in a fit of fuss and fluster, order a second one and finally relax and enjoy my meal, which is perfectly executed and delicious. Coffee is instant, thick and disgusting. I curse myself for not having ordered tea. On my arrival, I had noticed a red Illy sign on the door and believed I could find espresso here. Foolish.

In the streets, the army presence is visible. Some of the young soldiers show off their bodies wearing their uniform skin-tight and manage to look camp and fierce at once. I stare at them in disbelief. A country that dresses its soldiers in lycra mustn’t be overly concerned about parading its men’s virility, which is refreshingly mature and yet another example of the mixture of hard and soft features that Thai men are able to display. I have observed stern taxi drivers going out of their way to understand me and safely deliver me to the right address, their solicitousness unexpected and gratefully appreciated. Strength and kindness projected at once in a display that western men should take notice of and consider imitating.

I spend the afternoon at the nearby Wat Pho, home of the biggest reclining Buddha in the country, who looks content and comfortable in his horizontal pose. I bask in his golden gaze and admire the mother of pearl tattoos on the soles of his feet and then head back to the courtyard and chat to some Thai students keen to educate me on the environmental pitfalls of riding elephants as a tourist activity. They are polite and determined and even though their English is not up to the task, they bravely approach tourists and forward their cause. Before parting, we take pictures of each other. Thais rarely smile for the camera so these kids’ turn out looking like some rather serious insects. After my encounter with the young activists, I make my way back to the air-conditioned cocoon of my hotel room and get ready for the evening.

For my cocktail at Sirocco’s Sky Bar (T), I had packed a silk Nicole Farhi shirt from my yuppie London years. It is sexy without being revealing, which fits my lazy gym habits perfectly. On the 64th floor of the Dome Tower, a flock of carefully groomed waitresses in modern ao dais fussily welcome each lift-load of customers and sift them between “drink or eating”. I am here to drink and I am chaperoned to the terrace. The view is stunning. Being there feels like floating over the city. A lit staircase leads downstairs to the pointy balcony where a round bar delivers cocktails to a crowd of western and Japanese patrons. I order their signature Sky cocktail (vodka, gin, guava juice and raspberry puree) and enjoy the breeze, the view and the atmosphere, which is both romantic and fun. Sipping chilled alcohol amongst this eclectic crowd in high spirits ends my busy and enjoyable day on just the right note.

The following morning, I am back to temple duty: I head for Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, which is another explosion of religious beauty and offers lovely views of the river from its Chedi, decorated with broken plates once used as ballast in Chinese trading ships.  I sit in the fan-powered breeze of one of the temples amongst a group of Thai women and monks listening to the Abbott delivering a lecture. The piousness of the gathering is watered down by the preparations for the communal lunch and the alms being delivered spark a light of expectation in the eyes of the young monks on the temple’s platform. Their excitement is understandable: Thai monks are not allowed any solid food after midday so this supper, which will have to keep their bellies happy until tomorrow’s dawn, is keenly anticipated.

The midday heat soon gets the better of me so I retreat to the poshest place I can think of: the Oriental Hotel. I lunch on their veranda watching the boats floating by from behind the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the restaurant. Lunch is green papaya salad, duck red curry, sticky rice with mango and a cappuccino. The Thai food is delicious and “not too hot”, as the staff repeatedly checks in a show of conceited concern. The coffee comes with a couple of ritzy biscuits and a cinnamon quill encrusted with sugar crystals. I don’t sweeten my coffee but the novelty stick is so beautiful and aromatic that I am more than once tempted to dip it in.

After my meal, I feel perfectly restored by luxury and ready for the Royal Barge Museum, which, unless you charter a long tail boat or join a canal tour, is a bit of a trek to get to and, frankly, not worth the effort. The golden barges must be a stupendous sight floating down the silty river carrying dignitaries in full regalia but suspended on their frame in this large metal shed, they look a bit pointless: eight sad gondolas in drag trapped outside their element.

I soon retrace the long narrow path to the ferry pier and float back to Silom where ninety minutes of Thai massage bliss end my visit to the “city of angels”. When I exit the treatment room, a storm will drench me to the bone and a Boeing 777 will deliver me home but for now the nerve endings along my body’s energy lines are busy receiving shots of “good pain” from an expert and nameless masseuse. Before the rub, I volunteered my name and said I was pleased to meet her and she joined her hands in the prayer position and bowed. I waied back. This foreigner in white pyjamas attempting a Thai wai from his supine position must have looked funny because she giggled, and then started the massage.

Maurizio Viani

Name Address Web Phone Notes
Thai Airways http://www.thaiair.com/ Sydney –Bangkok, return (economy class): A$ 1,365
Luxx Hotel 6/11 Th Decho, Bangruk Bangkok 10500 http://www.staywithluxx.com T. +66 (0) 2635 8800

F. +66 (0) 2635 8088

BHT 2,100 per night; check-out at 8pm for free;

Airport pick-up (one way): BHT 700

Pak Khlong Talat Th Triphet (pier: N6 –Tha Saphan Phut Flower and vegetable market
Wat Pra Kaeo Th Na Phra Lan (pier: N9 –Tha Chang) http://www.palaces.thai.net/ Grand Palace & Emerald Buddha
Krisa Coffee Shop Th Na Phra Lan (In front of Wat Pra Kaeo’s entrance) Excellent Thai food in tiny air-conditioned dining room; lunch: BHT 180
Wat Pho Entrances in Th Thai Wang and Soi Chetuphon http://www.watpho.com/en/home/index.php Reclining Buddha
The Sky Bar at Sirocco The Dome, 1055 Th Silom http://www.lebua.com/bangkok/dining/sky-bar/ +66 (0) 2624 9555 Two cocktails: BHT 1,060 + tip
Wat Arun / Temple of Dawn Pier: Tha Wat Arun, across the river to N8 – Tha Thien http://www.watarun.org/index_en.html
The Oriental Hotel 48 Oriental Avenue off Th Charoen Krung http://www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok/ T. +66 (0) 2659 9000 Lunch: BHT 15,000 + tip
Silom Bodyworks 1035 Silom 21, Th Silom, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500 www.silombodyworks.com T. +66 (0) 2234 5543

F. +66 (0) 2234 9539

90 minutes of Thai massage with hot compresses: BHT 500 + tip
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Café Crawling in Paddington

Reservoir Gardens, Paddington

Reservoir Gardens, Paddington

Visiting Sydney for my first night away from home since our baby arrived, sleep was a high priority and so there was no way I was going to accept Mike’s invitation to go and train early Saturday morning with Evolution (i), his training group.  We agreed on coffee in the park afterwards, instead. Mike is an old friend and the only trainer who was ever able to keep me hooked (and fit) for years but a six am start wasn’t on my list of must dos after my first night to myself in six months.  We discussed kids, partners, career plans and life choices and, as always, I basked in the energy that Mike beams. He is a committed community builder and a formidable “connector” of people and, despite the demands of his two kids and successful business he seems to be able to draw from a bottomless well of energy. “It’s because he is so fit!” screams the fat mercilessly accumulating on my love handles…maybe, or maybe it is just because Mike is Mike.

We had good coffee and Bircher muesli at the Centennial Park Kiosk (i), which is a beautiful spot, especially after the renovations. Despite the gloomy day and the intermittent rain, the floor-to-ceiling glass let plenty of light in and the junior rugby team training next to the café did not seem to mind the weather and provided a great spectacle. “Only mad dogs, six-year olds and Englishmen”, as the saying goes.

After leaving Mike, I walked down Oxford Street for a bit of window-shopping and more coffee. I stopped at Max Brenner Chocolate Shop (i), which smells delicious and rich and makes you feel like you too are coated in cocoa. I bought a present for my wife – a little tin of “caramelised pecan rolled in praline cream and fine cocoa powder”. A hit.

I browsed the Paddington Markets (i), bought some wooden blocks for my son but was chased away by the rain and took refuge at the ACP -Australian Centre for Photography (i). I learned what I know about photography from their workshops and I check out their exhibitions every time I am in Sydney. They run one of the most interesting and stimulating galleries in town. Their current show: Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood (until July 11th) is beautifully shot and haunting. The models, in dramatic costumes and poses, look straight at the viewer from harshly contrasting, rundown backgrounds. I enjoyed the confidence in the subjects’ eyes, the foreignness of the settings and I learned something about Nigeria’s film industry. The show is theatrical and slightly disturbing (and features the best-looking portrait of Darth Vader I have ever seen).

After my photography fix, I walked just a few doors down to Paddington’s Reservoir gardens, which were not there when I left Sydney a year ago for our treechange in the Northern Rivers Region of NSW and to became our son’s primary carer. An interesting take on the sunken garden theme and an oasis of surprising calm, considering that the gardens are just a few inches away from the Oxford street traffic. What a terrific use of historic infrastructure!

I continued past the barracks, checking out the shops which had clearly recovered from the opening of the Westfield Shopping Centre in Bondi Junction (the mother of all torture chambers, if you ask me), and appeared  not to have noticed the Global Financial Meltdown. One sleek window after another, I reached Darlinghurst Road and turned right into it. The rain had started again but it did not bother me much. I was excited to be in a city again, where the rain goes down the drain instead of sticking to your heels in big clumps of mud, like it does at my new home, in the country. We have had four tropical storms and countless downpours in the last six months and I am sick of mud.

I stopped at the Ecabar (i) to read the weekend papers, have a bite (Spanish style frittata) and watch the other customers milling in and out. I have always enjoyed spending Saturday morning in cafes soaking up the mix of excitement and lazy atmosphere that the beginning of a weekend always conjures, but this gloomy Saturday in Paddington was a particular delight: I had a few more hours free from childcare duties and I was in Sydney. Bliss.

Name Address Phone Web
Evolution 0438 13 15 17 www.evolutiontowellbeing.com
Centennial Park Kiosk Grand Drive Centennial Park, NSW 2021 +61.2. 9380 9350 www.cpdining.com.au
Max Brenner Chocolate Shop 437 Oxford St, Paddington, NSW 2021 +61.2. 9357 5055 www.maxbrenner.com.au
Paddington Markets in the grounds of Paddington Uniting Church- 395 Oxford Street www.paddingtonmarkets.com.au
ACP -Australian Centre for Photography 257 Oxford Street, Paddington, NSW 2021 +61.2. 9332 1455 www.acp.org.au
Ecabar shop 2, 128 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst, NSW 2010 +61.2. 9332 1433
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