Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Lebanon Rising

It was a long time ago when I last left the country, for obvious C-word reasons. Two years ago in fact: September 2019, when I finally visited Lebanon, somewhere that had been on my list for many years.

It was to write an article for British Airways High Life magazine and, later, Fodor’s travel guide, on the lesser-known destination of Baalbek and the ruined Phoenician city of Heliopolis. The article focused on an amazing old hotel close to the ancient city which once attracted the likes of Einstein, Cocteau and Franz Ferdinand (Archduke), until a calamitous series of tragedies struck Lebanon in the form of war, bad government and, most recently, Covid, which dwindled the hotel's guest numbers to almost zero.

Kris Griffiths' article on Baalbek, Lebanon, for Fodor's

It was one of my most memorable travel experiences simply because the epic UNESCO site of ruined Roman temples is on par with classical counterpart sites in Rome or Athens, but with a fraction of visitor numbers due to Baalbek's proximity with the Syrian border. Undeservedly so though – I felt safe at all times, and wish that more people will visit this beleaguered city and country as soon as things properly open up again. 

Kris Griffiths, Baalbek, Lebanon

My other connection to the country is a longtime Lebanese friend named Nicolas Angelina, who I met almost 20 years ago when I started out reviewing restaurants for In London magazine, and he was handling the publicity for Noura restaurant on Piccadilly’s Jermyn Street which I was fortunate enough to be assigned to cover.

Not only was the Lebanese cuisine and atmosphere there memorable but I hit it off with this affable character who showed me around and we remained in touch ever since as I later started writing food and wine articles for luxury titles and it turned out Nico was heavily involved in the underrated Lebanese wine industry, and still is to this day. His wine brands partnered with and sponsored some seriously high-end events at the Ritz Hotel and Sir Ian McKellen’s patronage at Park Theatre in Finsbury, where I was lucky enough to meet the man myself for my unashamed favourite celeb selfie ever. 

Ian McKellen & Kris Griffiths

Kris Griffiths with Nicolas Angelina at Bleeding Heart, London
Me & Nicolas at centre of table

Back to the present day, Nico has kept me au fait on how Lebanon’s wine industry is now making great waves on the international scene, with four of the country’s vineyards making the recently announced World's 50 Best Vineyards in 2021: Châteaus Oumsiyat, Cana and Héritage, and Karam Wines winning best in the whole of Asia.     

This is seriously impressive stuff from a nation to have risen above so much of the calamities it has faced in recent years, not least its current unprecedented financial crisis. It’s a wider story I hope to be covering as soon as I can get back out of the country, and it will be extremely fitting if Lebanon becomes the first overseas nation I visit two years on from it being my last.

*Nico was also heavily involved with the Lebanon Pavilion at Olympia’s Specialty & Fine Food Fair earlier this month, promoting the country’s gastronomy to a wider audience, which I was disappointed to miss. If anyone should be shortlisted for the next national ambassador for Lebanon it’s surely this man. 

Lebanon Pavilion at Olympia’s Specialty & Fine Food Fair 2021

Flickr gallery of my visit to Baalbek, Lebanon. 

My full article on Baalbek for Fodor's www.fodors.com/news/hotels/royalty-artists-and-intelligentsia-stayed-in-this-hotel-overlooking-forgotten-roman-ruins-after-150-years-its-in-danger-of-closing


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Deutschland: Berlin & Lake Constance

After a lifetime of not quite making it to Germany's capital, I finally did so last autumn, and contrasted it with a separate trip to the much more relaxing Lake Constance in the south, on the borders with Austria and Switzerland.

Berlin's one of those cities that a long weekend is never going to give full justice to, so I'm just waiting for the right opportunity to return. What I did do was tick off all the main sights and attractions, so I can next time experience more of the real city away from the tourist areas.

The travelogue article I wrote for The Australian Times covered most of these: the Holocaust memorial and Topography of Terror museum; TV Tower and Alexanderplatz; art galleries the Dali Museum and C/O Berlin; and of course Mauerpark (pictured above) where I resisted the urge to sign up for 'Bearpit Karaoke' - wasn't drunk enough to perform for that many people!

Some of my other snaps from around the city:

And then on to Lake Constance, flying in to Zurich and also dipping into Liechtenstein for the first time. Did all four surrounding countries in as many days, which was a breeze with no border controls. Was disappointed not to get the chance to fly over the lake in one of the Zeppelins that floated overhead every day, although I did get to sail across from the Austrian town of Hard on a restored paddle steamer - ‘Hohentwiel’ - which was a trip highlight.

Others were Konstanz city itself with its ancient cathedral; getting to make Käsespätzle in the kitchen of my hotel near Vaduz; and the Tettnang hop museum and brewery which is Elysium for a beer lover like myself - the smell of its barn full of freshly harvested hops was amazing.

My travel feature on all Constance destinations visited for Luxury Lifestyle Magazine: www.luxurylifestylemag.co.uk/travel/hidden-europe-a-luxury-guide-to-lake-constance/

As of this month I've no outstanding travel plans save for Green Man Festival in South Wales in August. Just interested to see what happens post Brexit following our big leaving day on October 31st...

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Return to Zimbabwe - where business is booming again

It was five years ago I was lucky enough to visit for the first time the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, to write a travel article about its then recent renaissance as a tourist destination following the return of international airlines to its capital and the lifting of EU travel warnings.

It was such a revelatory experience to see and feel what the country has to offer, after years of negative press in newspapers and on the TV screen, that when the opportunity to revisit the nation arose last month I jumped at the chance to secure a new commission, with both The South African newspaper and Luxury Lifestyle Magazine.

On this trip, organised by Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, the group of accredited journalists was much bigger (four times as big in fact) which, while presenting a few more difficulties logistically, also made for a more vibrant social experience, with a range of backgrounds and nationalities represented.

The eight-day tour encompassed the length and breadth of the nation, which appeared to be in buoyant mood following the recent abdication of Robert Mugabe – Zimbabweans are naturally a happy and friendly people, but this time the welcoming smiles seemed even wider.

Destinations on the itinerary included Harare, Masvingo, Matobo, Bulawayo, Hwange and Victoria Falls, all distinctively memorable locations in their own right. It was also a pleasant surprise flying for the first time with Rwandair, who co-partnered the trip, from London Gatwick.

Both articles covering all destinations visited and the supporting airline will be published in a fortnight's time. My photo gallery for the time being: www.flickr.com/photos/krisgriffiths/albums/72157694715157724/with/41341240561/

Zimbabwe is truly open for business again.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Viva Italia: Naples, Herculaneum & Milano

My travels in recent years seem to thematically occur in threes - from Stockholm, Seattle & Snowdonia in 2015 to the Iberian trio of Lisbon, Andalusia & Cuba the year after.

Following that triplicate theme my latest round-up comprises three separate trips over the last 18 months to the European nation I've visited the most throughout my life and will never tire of doing so. From its unrivalled vino and food that no British restaurant can truly replicate, to those atmospheric old towns clinging to hills and mountainsides, the attraction of Italy never wanes.

My first return to the country after a hiatus of several years was to visit Naples and Campania for the first time, as a lucky member of a press trip organised by the city's tourist board in late 2016 to promote its regional cuisine.

After meeting government ministers and local food and wine suppliers at the Italian Food XP event in Mostra D’Oltremare I enjoyed a detailed tour of the historical city centre and its architectural highlights. While Naples is aesthetically a bit rough around the edges, it makes the contrasting pockets of Baroque beauty stand out even more, and is accordingly a great city for photography. Some of mine:

Naples street people (c) Kris Griffiths

I remember eating a lot of octopus and (as it was my birthday) drinking a lot of grappa throughout my few days there, so was badly hungover for my group’s final-day visit to the World Heritage site of Herculaneum (Ercolano): the ancient Roman town destroyed by the same 79AD volcanic eruption which devastated Pompeii.

My most memorable meal of the weekend took place fittingly on the lower inclines of Vesuvius later that afternoon: pasta served with tomatoes grown on the fertile volcanic slopes, washed down with Lacryma Christi (‘Tears of Christ’) - a local speciality wine made from grapes grown on the same slopes.

The only disappointment of the trip for me was that we didn't visit any purveyors of the world-famous Neapolitan pizza, so I had to steal away solo for a couple of hours before the return flight to seek out and scoff one with a final Tears of Christ wine 'for the road'.

And then there were two separate trips to Milan, a year apart - the first a standard sightseeing city break, taking in Il Duomo and various art galleries, and the second last September for the nuptials of an English friend and fellow journalist who had serendipitously met and wooed an Italian woman on a press trip he had himself been on a couple of years previously. 

It was probably the most memorable al-fresco wedding reception I've ever attended, in balmy late-summer temperatures at a rustic venue away from the city which looked like something out of The Godfather. It also happened to be my birthday again, what's becoming an inadvertent annual tradition.

Finally, it was during the previous Milan trip that I revisited with my then partner an old Cuneo town in the northern Piedmont region, 100km south of Turin, called Garessio: where my family used to holiday at a campsite when I was a boy. My parents had randomly stumbled upon the town while touring northern Italy with their caravan, and after they befriended some local shop-owners and fell in love with the place we would return several summers to this quaint old settlement surrounded by mountains, where you'd never encounter another British tourist. 

For most of those holidays I would be bored out of my skull, especially during afternoon siestas when everything shuts down, so it's only now as an adult I could fully appreciate visiting somewhere so off the beaten track.

Garessio's most beguiling hidden gem though is the ruins of a multi-storeyed grand old hotel destroyed by fire fifty years ago, still perched precariously on a hill overlooking the town. Now completely fenced off and left to crumble, the Hotel Miramonti - once you've managed to breach the fence - certainly makes for an engrossing afternoon wandering around its empty shell, with plenty of atmospheric photo opportunities you're not going to find many places elsewhere.

Hotel Miramonti Garessio

Hotel Miramonti Garessio staircase

Hotel Miramonti Garessio Kris Griffiths

And so concludes my Italian adventures for the time being, with the tourist-tastic Venice next on my list, which I've still not visited. As a fan though of the '70s horror movie Don't Look Now - the Daphne Du Maurier adaptation starring Donald Sutherland as a working holidaymaker in Venice - I have designs on visiting off-season in the colder months to beat those crowds and revisit Daphne's former haunts (pun intended)

Postscript. Apparently they're remaking the movie, to Sutherland's dismay, so the release date could be a timely peg on which to arrange a visit, as with my Twin Peaks travel feature for Rough Guides. It's reported that the sinister dwarf woman won't be making the new cut though, sadly.

All photos (c) Kris Griffiths. Further shots of Milan & Naples at Flickr gallery.

Another old hotel featured recently for Fodor's, in Baalbek, Lebanon

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cuba, Andalusia & Lisbon

From Stockholm, Seattle & Snowdonia late last year to three Spanish, or should I say Iberian, destinations this year, taking into account my first visit to Portugal.

That trip was actually to attend NOS Alive festival in Lisbon - headlined this year by Radiohead, Pixies and Arcade Fire - which I reviewed for Huffington Post.

The other two were week-long holidays in proper sunburn-inducing temperatures. It hit 40 degrees in Seville when we visited last month, with the temperatures thankfully cooling slightly in Cadiz on the southern coast.

Either way I found both cities to be very welcoming and laid-back and housing some impressive historical sites, including Seville's Alcázar and Plaza de España, and Cadiz's epic cathedral.

Seville's AlcázarPlaza de España, Seville

Cadiz Cathedral

I have to say I more enjoyed my time in these Andalusian cities than I did in Barcelona - less sprawling and a lot more chilled in atmosphere. My experience can be summed up by two animal-themed incidents that occurred in both cities, which I wrote about on my other personal blog (link).

Can also recommend probably the best restaurant I've visited in Spain - Cadiz's Taberna El Tio de la Tiza, serving fantastic portions of fresh local fish in a concealed square (my Tripadvisor review).

Cuba, on the other hand, was a completely different kettle of fish.

Like many Westerners have recently been doing we wanted to visit now before the country becomes too Americanised, relations with the US having recently thawed.

While its crumbling colonial architecture and 1950s cars made Havana very atmospheric, and everything was pretty cheap even with the weak pound, it also presented many frustrating obstacles too, from the often lax approach to service to making it as difficult as possible for you to get online - don't bother is the lesson we learned.

However the photo opportunities were endless, which is a boon if you've a quality camera and a good eye for composition. Some of my better snaps, including one that's probably my favourite taken in the last five years:

Havana man (c) Kris Griffiths

Like Andalusia I'm glad that I finally visited and experienced the place, but unlike Andalusia I won't be heading back in a hurry.

If I ever do, though, I'd like to find that bloke in the straw hat and thank him for letting me take his picture.

Full Cuba gallery, incl shots from Mexico City stopover, here.

All photos in this post (c) Kris Griffiths

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Stockholm, Seattle & Snowdonia

As I've not posted for a while I thought I'd pool into one round-up my alliterative last three destination visits, which were for both business and pleasure.

The first was a family hol in Stockholm for the first time, my only other visit to Sweden having been a day trip to Malmo ten years previously while staying in Copenhagen.

This time we did a house swap with a family residing on Lidingo island, not far from the city centre, and spent our time visiting the star tourist spots Skansen open-air museum and the 17th century Vasa warship that sunk on her maiden voyage, both fairly absorbing.

A lot of the rest of our time was spent trying to find pubs that served beer for less than £6 a pint, and on one day I stole away to watch Stockholm's finest football team 'AIK' destroy Elfsborg. With match tickets about £14, less than half of most EPL prices, it was one of the few inexpensive things on offer there.

AIK Stockholm v Elfsborg (c) Kris Griffiths

Next was my first visit to Seattle, to undertake the long overdue Twin Peaks pilgrimage that I'd successfully pitched to Rough Guides (full article with pics here). As the cult TV series I watched religiously as a teenager had last year announced its comeback with David Lynch back at the helm I basically rewatched the whole two seasons and resolved that the time had come to finally visit the filming locations, situated around that coastal corner of Washington State, before it returns to our screens next year.

I'd always wanted to visit Seattle even if I wasn't a TP enthusiast, having been a Nirvana fan since the early 90s and a craft beer lover since the noughties, and there aren't many better place to visit in the U.S for the latter.

Hendrix statue

Mount Rainier

The Pine Box bar

Also had a great time at the Experience Music Project museum, where I immersed myself in the permanent Nirvana exhibition, played on several guitars exhibited and even recorded a live version of Purple Haze by local boy Jimi Hendrix, playing drums this time while a random American bloke I bumped into did the vocals and guitarwork. 

KurtCobain bench (c) Kris Griffiths
Kurt Cobain bench, Viretta Park

Finally, after successfully climbing Coniston Old Man in the Lake District last year I decided I wanted to go one higher with Wales' tallest mountain Snowdon, which I ascended with Welsh sherpa mate Vaughan, who as a recent Iron Man contestant was far fitter than me and left me lagging for much of the ascent, particularly near the summit when I was on my last legs. Unfortunately it wasn't the best day for it either, with the upper half of the mountain above the clouds so zero visibility and the cafe at the top stuffed with other climbers so no chance for a cuppa before getting back down.

Snowdon (c) Kris Griffiths

Snowdon (c) Kris Griffiths

While there we also gave 'Zip World' - the longest zip line in Europe - a try in Blaenau Ffestiniog and hung out in nearby coastal towns Criccieth and Porthmadog, as well as the Italian-style village Portmeirion. 

Zip Blaenau Ffestiniog (c) Kris Griffiths

Zip Blaenau Ffestiniog (c) Kris Griffiths

That trip alone just went to show that, despite it being a relatively small country, there's still so much to see and do in the land of my fathers, with Caernarfon and Anglesey next on the list. 

But it's also been nice to mix things up with the continent and across the Atlantic. My next destination is Havana, Cuba, next month, which is as close as I will ever have been to South America, the only continent I've left to visit (bar Antarctica of course, which someone always says when I say that).

More of my travel shots at Flickr account. My article on visiting Snowdonia at www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/kris-griffiths/a-weekend-in-snowdonia

[all above photos (c) Kris Griffiths]