29 Dec 2011

Bohemian Like You

When you had every reason to give up on me after I went awol off the blog scene for 3 months, I resurface sheepishly, especially after churning out that last celebratory post, where I went blowing my own trumpet about clocking 200 posts to the counter... Thanks guys for hanging in there and giving La Baguette another go! I am most grateful.

Wild island in Tahiti, by Roving I, via Flickr

So you rightfully want to know what I have been up to for that last trimester, don't you? Feels like Autumn just passed us by and wahey the shortest Winter's day is also already behind us so we can look forward to another Summer of Love...

Meanwhile I have been living la vida loca, well as loca as you can get in this remote corner of Europe... I have made friends (Isa, Coco, Lili, Ben, this is for you!), attended a festival, danced the night away on a sandy beach, got sloshed on caramel vodka, slept in my car, stayed at a ski resort, went to parties, slept on couches and in my make-up, played cute and witty, fell out with people, cried and made up... I was sworn to secrecy, whispered promises, and faced with declarations, you name it. I have said things I never thought I would say, but in the name of inspiration the words just came out. I have also been writing poetry, in French for a change.

Manawai - Endless Summer from Andro Kajzer, via Vimeo

I had a little time left to work, to think deeply about the meaning of life and to book a trip as a volunteer to the Matang Wildlife Center in Sarawak, Borneo, although whether or not I will actually make the journey is another matter.

As you can see, I have been busy revisiting my life, questioning some of the values that used to be dear to my heart, and generally embraced free-spiritedness. It's been fun, hectic, exhilarating and sometimes downright upsetting. But there is no stopping me and I can honestly say that I have come a long way since first setting foot on the island of Corsica 24 months ago. Roll on 2012!

11 Sept 2011

Baguette 201

When La Baguette embarked upon the Blogger adventure in late Summer 2009, little did we know that we would one day hit landmark post #50, never mind #100! One year on and look what we've done: we've nailed another victory on the head with #200!

Twiggy (pict source)
In an ideal world we'd be blogging to our hearts' contents day in day out, and celebrating as we speak #500 but that would be in an ideal world. Rest assured my friends, there is no such thing with La Baguette! We'll leave the routine, discipline and high polish to our high-profile blogging colleagues and keep it real instead, just as it is, with a hectic unpredictable un-ideal life, where we oooh just about manage to juggle a blog or two in the mix of it!

And that's just the way we like it by the way. So then garçon, make mine and Carrie's a Cosmo and to the next #100!

August in Bloom

Welcome to La Baguette's latest feature: 'A Month in Bloom', which debuted in our February edition. At the end of each month, this blog will showcase a gallery of floral blossoms of the wild order encountered during that month on random walks around my current base in Northern Corsica.

High jinks in the maquis: Fennel (Anethum foeniculum L.)

Sorry to disappoint but August was nothing but déjà-vu on the botanical front. In Corsica, the peak of floral delight stretches from April to June; come Summer, any high expectations one might have on the subject are bound to end in disappointment.

In our part of the island, the second half of the month was unbearably hot and clammy. Grass was nothing but scorched and parched, and inevitably scrub fires erupted here and there, thankfully quite contained on the whole, despite causing material damage and high levels of stress to local residents. Thankfully no human casualties were reported. Flora and fauna weren't as lucky, especially Hermann turtles and wild boar.

Statement bulb: Allium

Next month, as Summer will be flirting with Autumn, we'll widen our search and come across berries and mushrooms. That'll be enough to spice up our floral quest.

In with Summer: Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

18 Aug 2011

Misguided by the Guide

Take the average holidaymaker. Give them a holiday guide. The paperback kind. What do you get? A long wondering thought... A thought that says something down the lines of how was it like before the holidaymaker and the holiday guide became an item?

'The Sleeping Gypsy' by Henri Rousseau (1897), via MoMA

Ninety seven percent of visitors to our garden preservation society come on their guide's recommendation. Whether said guide is called Guide du Routard, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or else. Wow! That's big business! You just secretly hanker after the thought that they did a Lonely Planet guide to the cool blogs out there and hey presto yours would turn popular in no time, generating cool advertising revenue in the process and liberating you from the constraints of the day job for the lucrative joys of the dilettante!

If you titillate the inquisitive side of life like La Baguette, you'll even start wondering what happened to the spirit of holiday adventure pioneered by our elders who went on vacation before guides had been made compulsory or at least before they became diluted down the mainstream like they now have. I'm not exactly an elder, yet my idea of a holiday has never involved the safety of a guide either, telling you in different levels of subjectivity where to go, where not to go, what to see, what not to see, what to eat and what not to eat. Rather a holiday needs to conjure up an adventure, a personal experience, a trip on the edge of the unexpected in all good measure. I wouldn't be daft enough as to encourage blissful ignorance and choose to get lost in the Borneo jungle or ramble carefree across Nicaragua!

'Mist-covered valley, Corsica', by Stéphane Victor, © Lonely Planet Images 2011

With me by your side, you don't want to look like your average tourist. You make sure you take your tickets, your wallet and passport and a good map. If you wanna feel smart, maybe trek down the local library prior to departure to soak in the flavour of the place to be visited, yet generally have faith in your own streetwise approach and capabilities as an explorer and authenticity-seeker, mastering those positive energy vibes in the process! Because what would go wrong if you did miss out on that holiday guide?

A few years back I travelled to Havana, Cuba, with nothing more than a very succinct pocket guide (thirty pages of it if that, and mostly pictorial!) and just planned my stay once I was there. I didn't miss out on anything a holiday guide might offer. In fact, my days were action-packed and the only time I ever glanced at the pocket guide was on the outbound flight from London, albeit distracted by the airline entertainment on tap, from the irrelevance of Miss Congeniality to the more topical Buena Vista Social Club pet sounds seeping through my headphones.

Buena Vista Social Club, via Amazon

I repeated the pattern with California! This time I only packed two simplified fold-out downtown maps of Santa Barbara and San Francisco and bobbed down the 101 like a local, with that Californian carefreeness. When in Rome, do as the Romans do... If I wanted to see the real Cali, man, I made sure I'd stay clear of the holiday guides. Simple as.

Back to our garden preservation society, the holidaymakers I have seen lately come accompanied by the guide, whose contents they all seem so evangelical about. They know how long the visit takes, the opening hours, the highlights, the lowlights, and the rest of it. In fact some of our visitors refuse to hear our garden presentations on the pretence that their guide does it for them. Blimey! There is only a thin demarcation line between the holiday guide and the bible methinks.

'Conoco, Albuquerque' (1969) by Ernst Haas

Some 'pilgrims' go even further, following religiously the guide's recommendations. Here at 9:00am, gone at 10:00am, reaching a new destination for noon, before embarking upon a new discovery mission later in the afternoon. Military precision. I thought holidays were supposed to be fun, unpredictable and relaxed. By the look on the face of some of those 'pilgrims', this sounds more like a military campaign doubled as a tick-box exercise. The hordes of tourists end up congregating down to the same places of pilgrimage. The secret coves of yesteryear have now become interplanetary bases, and the quiet country lanes have morphed into crowd-surfing spots, with our guys holding their guides to their hearts. At least - for once - it's not their Blackberries!

Meanwhile the locals have had to source new out-of-bound places that they keep to themselves for peaceful enjoyment, only until the next publication. As for the guided tourists, are they not simply putting themselves at risk of being misguided by those very guides they so religiously follow? By seeking to be smart, have they not simply just given up on any spirit of adventure, exploration and opinion, even kudos? In other words, how much is too much information, especially when handed to you on a plate? And after all, is ignorance not bliss? Hmm... So then... free yourself from the guide corseting your every move, and start living your holiday instead. Here's a sure first step towards freedom!

9 Aug 2011

I Want to Believe

I work in a customer-facing environment and I get to meet individuals from all walks of life on a daily basis, and especially more so right now, during the tourist season. The other day a lady tourist came down to the boutique. She was charming and she was charmed. In fact, she was entranced by Corsica, the beauty and variety of the scenery, the idyllic landscapes, the choice in places to visit and explore, the wilderness always - it seems - a stone's throw away. "It's lovely!", she kept on saying, carrying on with herself.

Aliens reached cult status thanks to The X-Files (image source)

I'd been pretty silent all the way through, occasionally nodding in approval. And then I don't know what got me but I broke her dream. Maybe I was only trying to be honest but it came out wrong, maybe it just wasn't my day, maybe it even had something to do with the time of the month, but I just spoilt if for her, and in retrospect I wish I hadn't.

In the conversation I casually mentioned the winters known to be deceptively long and drab. I went on a quick rant about the state of the roads, the slow post, the lack of retail choice, the scarcity of employment opportunities... As if this weren't enough, I went on complaining about the sudden power cuts and power surges that knacker many a domestic appliance (in my parents' case, a washing-machine and a flat TV set this year alone!). The outdated electricity network in this part of the island whose domestic output barely scrapes over 203 volts on a good day, and which paralyses an already slow broadband internet connection. I could have illustrated this with how an average blog update would have taken me half an hour back in the UK, while it routinely takes me up to 4 hours here. Four hours! Talk about devotion.

'Corsica Corte', by M.C. Escher (1929), via WikiPaintings

While I was at it, I was going to have a go at the water supply too. Instead I just suddenly fell silent. The look on the lady's face made me stop. She was looking at me like a rabbit caught in the headlights, gawping. "Yes but... Yes but..." She turned hesitantly towards her husband who'd remained silent throughout our consecutive monologues, and then she turned back towards me and ventured in a murmur, clutching at her straw hat: "Yes but... but it's lovely here! It's lovely though, isn't it?" I had to save the day, her day. So I just smiled, cracked a joke and nodded in approval when she forced a smile.

Yes but... dear readers! Faced with this textbook case of grass being greener, of this beautiful tourist candour, of tourist under the spell of the place they came to visit (and we all fall victim to this ourselves as tourists at least once in a lifetime), and in my humble defence, I must add that loveliness is sometimes not enough. I communicated this in my own way to the lady but this taught me one good lesson in return: to shatter a tourist's dream and their idea of perfection will in no way restore any sense of that already elusive loveliness!

7 Aug 2011

July in Bloom

Welcome to La Baguette's latest feature: 'A Month in Bloom', which debuted in our February edition. At the end of each month, this blog will showcase a gallery of floral blossoms of the wild order encountered during that month on random walks around my current base in Northern Corsica.

An ode to immortality: Helichrysum italicum
In this part of the island July was hot, only slightly cooled down by a 5-day windy spell, a couple of overcast days and even the odd heavy shower. The humidity levels interspersed with dry heat wreaked havoc on cultures, in particular tomatoes, and also fostered infestations. Sadly yet predictably the high winds encouraged the odd scrub fire across the island, and closer to home too. Firemen patrols were on red alert and the overall damage has been 'contained', although hazard will remain until the back end of September.

Botanists and flora lovers at large won't have found as much satisfaction in July as they would have in Spring when the diversity of Corsican wild flowers will have put on a fabulous show of colours and contrasts. Comparatively July looked rather bland on the floral front and one will have to be patient until next Spring in order to re-live the Corsican floral jamboree!

Beauty secret: Helichrysum italicum
Having said that, it would be fair to mention the likes of Helichrysum italicum, otherwise commonly known as immortelle in French. Helichrysum flowers in late June, in the form of stemmed clumps of bright yellow blossoms found on exposed sunny rocksides, mostly by (but not restricted to) the seaside. In July, the yellow blossoms turn gold as they dry up, fragrancing the air with their distinctive aroma. Helychrisum is one of the plants that contribute to the so-distinctive Corsican maquis fragrance, that very fragrance that kinds of hit you as you step off the aeroplane in airfields across the island.

In skincare, helichrysum was to the noughties what green tea and tea tree oil were to the 90s, with its success showing no sign of waning thereafter. Helichrysum extract is used, not only by French skincare specialists L'Occitane, Corsican skincare firms Réalia, Imiza and Les Simples & Divines, and by dermatologists, to correct skin blemishes, but also to soften wrinkles, soothe sunburns and even bruises! Talk about a miracle in a jar!

In the spotlight: Helichrysum italicum
Another plant fondly associated with Corsican riches is Myrtus communis (myrtle). The shrub is a component of the medium-height maquis, usually found in a tight embrace with nearby shrubs like viburnum, heather and strawberry trees. Its white flowering comes out in late June/ early July and resembles that of the hawthorn, with a delicate fragrance to boot. Although not edible as such, myrtle berries are used to make a strong brandy and nowadays are making a foray into Corsican delicatessen, nouvelle cuisine style (myrtle-flavoured salt, chocolate with myrtle berries).

Yet July is much more than those two cultural heavyweights of helichrysum and myrtle. Open those peepers wide, scratch the surface of the Corsican Summer landscape and you'll start finding a flower or two that's also noteworthy. Go for a wander and it won't be long until you spot Verbascum or Saponaria by the roadside, or down the embankment. Crithmum maritimum, another cosmetology darling, is also making a splash, by the seaside.

Pilar of society: Myrtle
Rejoice, we've just proved our point: despite first impressions it's not that lonely on the Corsican flower front this side of Summer! And remember to join us next month to find out whether August was a close contender!

Harking back to Spring: Saponaria
Seaside companion: Crithmum maritimum
Out in the open: Common Chicory
High and yellow: Verbascum nigrum

2 Aug 2011

Hot Summer Cool! (Part 3)

We know what you did last Summer, La Baguette! You discovered Brax via the German mail-order upmarket fashion company Peter Hahn, and haven't looked back since! Now dear readers, you may or may not be already familiar with the brand, yet either way it is highly likely that its tailored yet incredibly comfortable casualwear will become a favourite of yours in no time. Brax does for a flattering fit with a touch of exclusivity. The timeless appeal of the clothing ranges and the quality of fabric and stitch will allow for a look that lasts the distance, both in time and usage.

Part of the Brax Golf 'Essential Powder 2' look
With a brand like Brax that wears its feelgood factor on its sleeve, you can't really go wrong. We are talking also about a brand that you won't be at risk of spotting on every street corner, unlike the Mangoes and the H&Ms of this world... Rest assured, you needn't be a golf club member in order to achieve the preppy look on display here via the 'Brax Golf' collection. And Brax is not solely about conservative pastel colour schemes, it also likes to throw in the odd surprise party, with bursts of bright colour and even a last-minute fashion detail or two!

Part of the Brax Feel Good 'Laura' look
Now then ladies, this Summer you can either miss the boat by sticking to your LBD (little black dress) or high-street retail copycat fashion, or lead the way with Pain de Sucre, Little Marcel and Brax, amongst so many many other cool niche brands out there! Renowned for living the lifestyle with attitude, there is no doubt which road La Baguette will be travelling down! Happy shopping!

Part of the Brax Golf 'Green Sport 3' look
Part of the Brax Golf 'Sweet Pastels' look

17 Jul 2011

Hot Summer Cool! (Part 2)

If you have a soft spot for the French nautical theme but cannot afford Jean-Paul Gaultier's trademark stripey designs, then look no further than Little Marcel as the solution to your fashion dilemma. Its winning clothes range is making waves (pardon the pun!) thanks to a geometrical delight of horizontal lines and stripes presented in bold statement colours set against the candour of its calligraphed logo.

'Eden' dress by Little Marcel
The brand is young (6 years' old), quintessentially French, instantly recognisable, and already high on the French beachwear establishment league. Little Marcel describes itself as 'intemporel & ludique' (timeless & playful), and its fresh approach to all things stripey across its womenswear, menswear, kidswear and accessories collections makes it one step ahead of fashion, year on year.

'Rotring' dress by Little Marcel
Ladies, do yourself a favour and don't let the likes of Trinny and Susannah spoil your fashion fun with their fashion rules (horizontal lines are said to make you look fuller in figure), and instead revel in your curves and feminity. Little Marcel's clothing shapes are body-flattering. Its close-to-the-body lycra Summer dresses will reveal the vampish Pamela in you, while the demure flapper styles will exude the Louise Brooks in others, while 1950s pin-up nostalgics will funk up their wardrobe in a twirl!

With every woman bound to find her way with Little Marcel, this is a definite ode to fun, not a diktat to Fashion Week. So there ladies, you are onto a winner with this one! (to be continued)

Accessorise your wardrobe with those 'Pretty' purses

5 Jul 2011

Hot Summer Cool! (Part 1)

Summer's on and it's clammy out there! I don't dare to think what it must feel like to be stuck in the city while pining away for that beach... flaunted to you by means of a desktop wallpaper... Although I have to endure Mediterranean heat, I am privileged enough to enjoy a coastal drive on my way to work, and not have to endure traffic jams, tepid malodourous whiffs from the subway and the alienation of fluorescent office lighting when I reach my destination.

'Niagara' voile tunic by Pain de Sucre
Right this moment there are a few very cool, very neat, brands out there that deserve our undivided attention. They celebrate Summer at its coolest, and although not exactly appropriate for the office, they can at least transfigure us into bathing beauties and playa pin-ups on our way to the airport, without wasting an iota of that precious vacational mood!

La Baguette set out on a mission, and what a mission! To bring you the best in town for that effortless beachwear look. We'll start off with Pain de Sucre, the French glossies darling, where swimwear and bodywear go beyond the call of duty to deliver style that lasts the distance. Just see for yourself. (to be continued)

'Tautira' bikini (with reversible triangle bra top)

3 Jul 2011

June in Bloom

Welcome to La Baguette's latest feature: 'A Month in Bloom', which debuted in our February edition. At the end of each month, this blog will showcase a gallery of floral blossoms of the wild order encountered during that month on random walks around my current base in Northern Corsica.

Fluttering heights: Scabiosa
There's no two ways about it: the heat is on! Predictably Summer has landed before its due date and temperatures have been high, verging on the unbearable (last week of June), consistent with high humidity levels along the shoreline, otherwise typical of August.

The dry climate has had a direct effect on the landscape, with exposed expanses of grassland turning dry and yellow and crackling underfoot like straw. A small number of bush fires were even reported further South down the island.

A buzz in the kitchen: Oregano
Vegetation growth has slowed down, except for climbers (wild Clematis and Ivy) and Bramble that are thriving regardless of temperature highs and water scarcity.

Already blooms and blossoms are less dramatic than back in April or May. Having said that, amongst those more modest and contained flowers, let us mention Scabiosa, Vicia, Bindweed, Thistle, Echium vulgare and Oregano. The second half of June saw the much-anticipated Myrtle stand out in the dense maquis as it came out in splashes of white. Its virginal sprays used to be worn by Corsican brides on their big day. Nowadays myrtle is more likely to find its way down the Corsican spirits route as 'alcool de myrte'.

What a feeling: Ecballium elaterium
In the yellow flower department, we'll note Fennel (Anethum foeniculum L., also referred to as 'Finochjiu' in Corsican), and also the singular Ecballium elaterium. The latter is remarkable as far as its propagating ways are concerned: rampant stems produce a simple flower followed by a (non-edible) gherkin packed-full with seeds that shoots up in the air once ripe... Just make sure you don't stand in the way!

All in all, it looks like the maquis flower show has now reached its pinnacle for the year, but before the botanist's wows and ahhs subside in the background, there will still be one or two surprises in store, sure to delight us in their own special way, amongst which the Helichrysum italicum, so join us next month to find out more!

So fresh: Common Mallow (Malva neglecta)
A familiar sight: Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)
Making a colour splash: Achillea
On the rampage: Rubia peregrina

Little House on the Prairie (Part 2)

My new work assignment allows me to feel blessed by the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the rambling valley encased in lush hillsides, age-old hamlets suspended in time, a nearby brook...

The preservation society's gardens deserve a mention too. Although still looking neglected in places, they are set to enjoy a revival thanks to our new chairman. I too am pushing in that direction: on my visit last year I hadn't been impressed by their state of semi-neglect ('semi' used as a polite word).

The gardens are organic and multi-purpose. Part of the site is dedicated to the preservation of ancient cultivated fruit and vegetables (old varieties of onion, leek, tomato, peach and apple trees), by the means of a seed bank (conservatoire de graines). Besides an on-site greenhouse offers garden members the possibility to purchase tomato, aubergine, courgette, onion, aromatic herbs and capsicum plants. Visitors - especially those unacquainted with country life - discover a working kitchen garden and the orchard. Fruit is collected and used into the popular compôtes, jams and preserves, syrups, sauces, chutneys and the likes that will eventually find their way to the boutique shelves.

Finally the semi-wild garden is also a representation of what the maquis stands for up close and personal, in its full spectrum and informality, from the low grasses to the medium-height cytisus, heather, genista, myrtle, up to the taller grades of the scrub: green oak, cork oak, pine, wild olive trees, etc. The gardens are a taster to botany without the stuffy science bits.

Promenade en Corse parmi ses Fleurs et ses Forêts, by Marcelle Conrad
By its nature, the garden is not supposed to be compared to those formal, regimented, weed-free, stately gardens like Chambord or Versailles, or even to the falsely wild yet incredibly romantic Monet's gardens at Giverny. Here in 'our' garden, wild flowers take pride of place and are encouraged. The difficulty lies in the fact that all too often our gardeners tip-toe on that very fine line that separates wild from neglect. 

While most of our visitors seem genuinely charmed by the rusticity of the gardens, some will understandably express their concern about a certain lack of care, while a small minority will virulently oppose anything that doesn't resemble geranium, begonia, dahlia or petunia... Although it is clear that those individuals got the wrong address in the first place, I am quick to add in their defence that part of the garden preservation society's mission is to endeavour to change perceptions and preconceptions towards plants, weeds, the cultivated vs. the spontaneous, and the concepts of balance, beauty and acceptance.

Organic produce is available to purchase from the boutique
Therefore garden guardians have a long task ahead, yet this is a challenge that I am relishing in. So who's next please?

27 Jun 2011

Little House on the Prairie (Part 1)

I might make a few envious amongst my readership as soon as I reveal to all of you guys that I am currently working for a garden preservation society! This new chapter in my curriculum is practically a match made in Heaven as it combines personal passions and hobbies: botany + ethnography + ecology + interest for the island of Corsica + the more pragmatic commercial flair.

Commercial flair is a driving force to any business and in this case it is not so much in relation to the business itself whose status as a society makes it reliant upon various state subsidies and the generosity of private benefactors, than tapping (further) into the revenue potentiality offered by the on-site organic delicatessen and healthcare/ beauty boutique.

With a new chairman at the helm, an established down-to-earth entrepreneur with solid business acumen, the garden society is set to sail towards a more promising future. I have been tasked with shop management, stocks, pricing, supplier relations, advertising and the sales experience whereby the customer receives a personalised '+1' service that goes beyond the sell/ purchase transaction. Without meaning to sound pretentious, I would be enclined to say that this is something I am good at and I am loving the challenge!

My secret? Just plain common sense really. I personally believe in, understand and praise the benefits for each and every single product for sale in the boutique. I have used most of them and my advice is no push-to-sell pitch. I am not commissioned by either the brands I sell or the society itself, and I certainly don't have the mindset of the ordinary sales person who clocks in and clocks out and painfully chews their bubble gum looking glum for the time in-between, while wishing their life away day after day... Hey, what a waste for both employer and employee: there is some urgent need for a career change!

Each customer deserves my full attention, because this is the way I would like to be treated and acknowledged as a customer. A customer has every right to enjoy and remember their retail experience, and it is the shop floor sales' objective to make that experience pleasant, memorable and meaningful, whether the customer buys a jar of cherry preserve, a case of premium wine, or a basketful of groceries and essential oils.

A smile works wonders too. Maybe some shop workers out there need reminding about the power of a smile, acknowledging the customer and showing that you care, that you're there. Besides I always have advice to hand, ideas and suggestions on how to use those compôtes, chutneys, dried herbs or myrtle essence, even anecdotes about plants, land, weather, Corsica, the economy, you name it...

All in all, you can imagine that I am not stuck for words: just take a look at La Baguette and you get a pretty good idea! (to be continued)

13 Jun 2011

Hotel Review - The Village Hotel Cheadle

I had planned a trip to Manchester at relatively short notice and was looking to stay in the South of the city for convenience (within easy reach of the airport, and because most of my engagements would take place in South Manchester) and personal choice (historically South Manchester had been my homebase for the best part of 16 years).

Last time I was in the UK (back end of August 2010), I had booked a room at the City Inn Hotel Manchester (now rebranded as Mint Hotel) bang in the centre of town, halfway between Piccadilly Gardens and Piccadilly Train Station. Although it was convenient in certain ways (mainly on the retail and catering front), it proved rather tricky in relation to my South Manchester-based appointments. So this time around I was determined to give the city centre a miss.

Mum's ready for action and The Village Hotel has it!

Last time I took my brother with me and now I was taking my mum. I was hiring a car, which would give us that much-needed freedom of movement, as you end up wasting a lot of time and money juggling taxis, trains, buses and the likes... We could therefore afford to be off the main parkways and out of town centres.

The temptation for anyone looking for a hassle-free booking would have been to resort to one of those budget hotels within the immediate airport area. The Travel Inn was priced at an attractive £29.00 a night, but in terms of attraction I was looking for something else. I wanted our hotel stay to have a bit more oomph and drama. Previously I had stayed at the Village Hotel Cheadle, even had dinner there a couple of times, I even had insider knowledge of the place (my partner had worked there), so this was going to be my natural choice. I wasn't taking a risk, neither was I prepared to take one.

The 117-bedroom Village Hotel is located in the leafy suburbs of Stockport, a Cheshire town touching the South East Manchester boundaries. The hotel is a good 15 minutes drive away from the airport (on a quiet day) and within easy reach of the motorway, a half-hour drive from Manchester city centre off peak hours. It enjoys a good reputation and attracts a wide array of demographics, from business people to families, wedding parties, week-enders or friends/ couples on a city break.

That statement dark entrance! (picture source)

The hotel is set in a landscaped environment of mature trees, with ample parking space, and refers to itself as a hub, for it is not only a hotel, but also a restaurant & grill (Verve), a pub (Victory), a Starbucks café, a conference destination, a function venue, and a very popular leisure club complete with swimming pool. There is a buzz about that whole place, no doubt about it! The Cheadle hotel is part of the 25-strong Village Hotel group. The group has been under the umbrella of the prominent De Vere portfolio (Malmaison Hotel, Hotel du Vin, Liberty (dept. store), Searcys etc.) for a couple of years and each of the 25 Village hotels are being repackaged up by the De Vere guys into 'an affordable, design-led hotel with an individual vibe of its own', aiming for trendy boutique hotel status at a reasonable price. 

I booked the hotel only a few days ahead of the trip, via Booking.com and got a 50% deal straightaway: £250.00 for a twin room for 4 nights (buffet breakfast included). Not bad when you consider that rooms are typically 3 to 4 times the value of a Travel Inn room!

Last time I had stayed at The Village Hotel was in a suite, and my current expectations were a tad warped by the experience. The twin room seemed cramped, certainly not as roomy as an average De Vere twin room. It was also quite dark (some hotel reviewers have gone as far as describing their room as dark and dingy), which wasn't helped by the dark accent wall.

Lightening up the sombre mood of the room!

One of the perks of hotel guests once they step inside their room is either to raid the mini-bar or the complimentary breakfast bar. In our case, there was no mini-bar. As for the breakfast bar, the choice of beverages was limited to coffee, decaffeinated coffee, and that strong builders brew (tea) that even the milk pod and sugar sachet wouldn't soften the strength of. No biscuits, tid-bits, fancy/ herbal teas that you would otherwise expect from a boutique hotel on a par with 'The Mal'. And I have to say I was a bit bothered by this.

Same in the bathroom department. Hotel guests love those sample-size shower gels, shampoos, creams and cutesy soaps. Here you had to content with the basic Cussons dispenser in the bath, and a (faulty) liquid soap dispenser by the sink. The toilet paper was cheap and nasty. These are little things but hotel guests pick on them. I saw no hairdryer in the room, although I am sure I could have requested one from the reception desk. The door knob looked like it had been replaced but you could see the markings and holes from the previous one from a different design. There was a fine sprinkling of dust over the desk lamp and the standalone lamp (easily noticeable as soon as those lamps were on). The window glass needed a clean and so did the flat roof that we overlooked.

Besides the hotel was noisy on two levels. It is on the flight path and those of you used to the peace and quiet of the countryside or the sleepy towns might pick on this straight away. However the flight noise is bearable and no aircraft activity could be heard roughly between 12:00am and 5:00am. The second type of noise came from the function rooms which happened to be underneath our room. Noise subsided after 12:00am (possibly around 1:00am to 2:00am, I couldn't say for definite). One night we had a 1980s disco to content with. Duran Duran and FGTH didn't exactly lull us to sleep, although for the music's sake I would have preferred something edgier from back in the day although then I might have joined the party!

Rise and shine!

I don't mean to sound like a grating episode of The Hotel Inspector. Maybe I should indicate in passing that I worked a short stint in the hotel industry, which has made me more naturally attuned to some of the details I have mentioned here. Having said that, you get the clear message that the company is on a cost-cutting mission and the first casualties are the little touches, which is most unfortunate when you aim to position your brand as a boutique hotel. (After writing this review I had a look at the Village Hotel website which funnily enough mentioned 'little touches' at the hotel... At least we are on the same wavelength, except poles apart!).

At least the food didn't let us down. You could taste that it had been freshly prepared. My mum and I dined at the Verve restaurant on the evening of our arrival, and enjoyed the Salmon Fishcakes which we had ordered as a main course. We were each presented with one haggis-sized fishcake, but once we got over the odd presentation, we loved the melting combination of salmon and potato purée, served with a light vinaigrette and Tartare sauce. For dessert, we had a heavenly (and filling!) Bread and Butter Pudding served with Chocolate Sauce and Orange Marmelade. I was a bit taken aback by the waiter bringing us a pitcher of tap water when I asked for water (I meant a bottle of still water, like Evian or equivalent)...

Breakfast was a moment we looked forward to: a buffet-style eat-as-much-as-you-like feast that encompasses all tastes, from the continental breakfast (fresh fruit, juices, yogurt, milk, cereals, muesli, Danish pastries, croissants, toasts etc.) to the typical Full English Breakfast, all presented within the Nantucket design style of the Verve restaurant. The temptation to linger over breakfast was strong as it was really cosy there!

A few supplies from Sainsbury's to get us going!

The staff were friendly, although the reception manager did look a bit harassed one time, and on our very early departure on Sunday it would have been nice for the night porter/ hotel manager or whoever that middle-aged guy was, to thank us for our stay and wish us a pleasant journey, rather than blurting out in a huff from a distance: 'Have you paid everything?'. Not exactly a parting good-bye, but then again this hotel sadly lacks in places what it should be all about: the little touches!

The Village Hotel Cheadle, Cheadle Road, Cheadle, Stockport, Cheshire SK8 1HW, U.K.
Tel: (+ 44) (0)844 980 8033

The + sides: conveniently situated, young and vibrant atmosphere, comfy bed, Verve restaurant fayre fresh and tasty
The - sides: room décor a bit cheerless; noisy room; not as spotless as should be; lack of little extras and lack of attention to detail; toilettries/ hot beverages in the room to the absolute minimum; a hairdressing/ beauty salon would have been handy for those guests short on time. That night porter guy/ concierge, not a happy bunny!

Read my review published on Booking.com.

10 Jun 2011

Hop & Shop in Candy Shades!

A couple of weeks ago I took my mum to Manchester (U.K.) on a four-day trip packed full with appointments and commitments, but we managed to squeeze a spot of shopping in between!

The mugs are from John Lewis
We visited two familiar retail haunts which also rate high as personal favourites: John Lewis (Cheadle) and Kendals (where my mum took advantage of the amazing sale to invest in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein nightwear for my dad). I took my mum to Lakeland (Handforth), the British kitchen domestics equivalent to Mathon (the Mathon catalogue is virtually my mum's bedside read!). She loved it there in Lakeland, and amongst other items, purchased individual 1950s style enamel oblong pie dishes, with the promise of culinary delights to come!

We whizzed down to Sainsburys to stock up on crumpets, custard creams, golden syrup, cake decorations, tea cakes, Battenberg cake, organic white tea and we even pushed the button further by purchasing... flour! This is in fact so that I can recreate the 'perfect' Victorian Sponge back in Corsica using the most appropriate ingredients! How British was that for a shopping list, by the way!

Every cloud (made of chocolate) has a silver lining!
Our tight timetable was such that there wasn't any time left for wandering or exploring further shopping venues (apart from the obligatory trips down to the local DIY store as this is developed further down this article). Meanwhile I had been looking forward to a cake shop & tea parlour in West Didsbury called And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon which I had found out about via Twitter, but had to cross it off our list as we were defeated by time... Instead we stumbled across a Costa Coffee down the Altrincham high street and that one had to do!

To be fair, it would have been nice to add an extra couple of days to our schedule and dedicate that extra time purely to shop and treats, but with a new job looming on the horizon of our planned return date, this would have been impossible for me to honour.

Coconut ice from John Lewis
We stayed at The Village Hotel Cheadle, which I will talk about in more detail in my next article. Cheadle is a Stockport suburb located in South Manchester, and the hotel was a handy base for our to-ing and fro-ing around the Cheshire fringes of Timperley-Altrincham-Handforth for most of my scheduled appointments. Last but not least, our Cheadle base was also within accessible radius of my little house which I am currently renting out via a property agent.

My mum and I had taken advantage of the fact that the tenancy had come to an end, in order to go down to the house for inspection, replace a couple of bathroom fixtures, and add a few touches to the property to make it even cosier. We also took up the task of tidying the garden: three bins worth of cuttings, dead leaves, overgrown branches and weeds! Although my elderly tenant looked after the house beautifully, the garden clearly wasn't her cup of tea, although I had offered her (via the agency) the services of a gardener to help her keep on top of it but she had declined...

Easy does it at John Lewis!
Anyway I'll let you swoon over a small selection of the sweet nothings in candy shades that my mum and I brought back from the UK (further evidenced by the excess luggage charge that we incurred from the EasyJet desk on the day of departure)... But in the end, it was all good and we loved every minute of it! Now I can't wait to return, if only for the shopping fix which I will never get out of my system, especially now as a 'recluse' islander in the Med, in a place that is a galaxy away from the fast-lane premium shopping experience that any major UK city hands you over on a plate!

On these pictures I am sure you'll agree that not only are the sugary colours covetable, but those amongst us with a soft spot for packaging design, typefaces and typesetting will be equally sensitive to the charms they exude. Looks so good, you don't want to spoil the fun by cracking open the boxes to raid their contents!

Ready for Fathers Day!
So French yet so British!
Our candy theme all the way down to menswear!