Wednesday 28 February 2024

London hotel: Holiday Inn High Street Kensington

I did not quite have enough Qantas frequent flyer points for two return flights to Edinburgh so I decided to use them for one flight and then put the rest towards a week in a hotel in London.  This meant that we had to go through the Qantas holiday site which gave less options.  After discarding a couple of cheap-as-chips hotels, I decided on the Holiday Inn - High Street Kensington. 

It is the sort of hotel I would consider when travelling for work rather than holidays but it was close to the West End with good amenities and transport options.  While staying anywhere for a week I often like an apartment for a kitchen, London is different.  I have lived in London and also visited as a tourist.  I decided that location and comfort were our main aims.  And if we could make this affordable, so much better.  I didn't know I had booked breakfasts as well until just before we arrived.  A week of comfortable beds and a fry up each morning in a great location for $787 (after frequent flyer points) was great value in London.

We had twin beds with a bathroom, as well as a tv, hairdryer, kettle and bar fridge.  And of course wi-fi.  Upon checking in, I was relieved that the room seemed larger than it looked on the Qantas website.  I was surprised that they did not have temptation of a minibar in our room but we were well catered for with food.  We had options of cooked breakfasts in room or in the restaurant, a bar, room service and a Starbucks, as well as a good range of food to purchase near the hotel.  Sylvia also loved the pillow menu and sleeping next to a window that opened.  Actually I think we were happy to be in London where people spoke our language.

We arrived late in the afternoon following over 8 hours of train travel from Zurich, including a local train between stations in Paris.  We were tired after navigating the tube ticketing system (which had changed in the 20 years since I had last been there) and dragging suitcases up the stairs at Kensington High Street underground station.  London was dark and rainy so we had dinner at the hotel.

I didn't love the menu.  Sylvia was delighted to have the options of generic pasta and pizza, even after a week of eating the good stuff in Rome.  She ordered the Pasta Arrabiata, penne pasta in a slightly spicy tomato sauce.  She loved it and the garlic bread that we shared.

I needed more than carbs and had the choice between soup and salad.  I went with the Superfood and Quinoa salad: white and red quinoa, grilled courgettes, green asparagus, green beans, sundried tomatoes, dried apricots, roasted almond flakes and sumac dressing.  When it came I could not believe that it was mainly baby spinach, nuts and Turkish dried apricots with very little quinoa and other vegies.  In the end Sylvia and I shared our pasta and salad and they worked well together.  However at 16.50 pounds I expected much more than the salad I got. 

On our first morning, we headed down to breakfast.  Our room number and name were checked by the staff member at the counter with bright pink orchids and a sign saying "Good morning.  All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."  This foretold of the queues on most mornings, probably partly because the latter part of our week was in half-term break for UK schools.  The breakfast room (Boulevard Restaurant) was huge and queues would move quickly. 

Upon arriving each morning we would start by getting a small glass of juice.  I liked to mix the cranberry and apple juices but was also pleased that cold water was available.  Neither of us spent time at the tea and coffee station.

Next we went to the hot food area to serve ourselves a hot breakfast.  Most mornings we had an English breakfast (aka a fry-up). 

These were my favourites: baked beans, vegetarian sausages, roasted baby mushrooms and hash browns.  Sometimes I had grilled tomatoes.  Sylvia loved the eggs too.  I tried the pancakes one morning but they were either too tough or two soft.  I topped them with some yoghurt, prunes and stewed peaches.  The worst morning was when there was a problem with the stove and hot food was scarce.

The toast machine was over the other side of the room to the hot food.  I usually spent time waiting for slices of bread to slowly travel between the red hot elements and slide out as toast.  Chatting to others waiting for toast was the most social part of the breakfast.

Next to the toast were the jams, spreads and the baked goods: croissants, pain au chocolat, pain au raisins, and muffins.  Some mornings we wrapped a few baked goods in a serviette for later.

It took a few days to find the cereals station.  I would have liked to try cereals with yoghurt and fruit but was always drawn to the hot food. 

Here is my breakfast on the first day.  As I have said, it was good value and I was pleased they catered to vegetarians.  It was a great way to start each morning, and, as breakfast closed at 10.30am on weekdays and a little later on weekends, it meant we didn't sleep in too much.

I loved the walk to tube on the first morning.  It was only a few minutes walk.  Despite some roadworks we had a lovely walk past typical West London flats.  The first place I stayed when I first arrived in London was NottingHill Gate where my sister worked in a pub, and later I lived in Shepherd's Bush.  It is an area of London that is very familiar to me and I felt quite at home.

As I said the breakfasts could changed on different mornings.  This was the sort of breakfast that Sylvia loved with toast, fried eggs, cheese, hash brown, beans, mushrooms, tomato and rocket.

On only one morning I found these really cute little glass jars with muesli, yoghurt and berries.  This seemed more manageable than mixing my own yoghurt and fruit and muesli.  I was so pleased to have this for when I finished my fry up but was so full I could not eat much of it.

When we checked in, we were given a choice of bath and shower.  I chose the latter.  It amused me that the hand soap and body wash were parsley stalk fragranced.  (I am not sure if parsley leaves have a different aroma to the stalks but maybe it was a sustainability project to use us leftover stalks.)  

I am used to little shampoos and soaps in hotels and holiday houses but on our trip I found most places had large bottles and at the Holiday Inn had them locked down.  It seemed that we were being encouraged not to take them as souvenirs.  I loved the sign directing us to place the non-slip bathmat securely on a dry surface before turning on the water.  Bathmats strike me as very British and unnecessary but I assume this was an anti-litigation sign.

Our stay was not without challenges.  This is our final collection of keycards to let us into the room.  (Well, almost all, as I found one in my wallet when I got home.)  We got locked out of our room a few times and staff were very helpful in replacing them but it was frustrating.  I got told that mobile phones could unset the coding.  It seems a problem when it was intuitive to put our phone and key card together in a safe place.  We also had a leak in the bathroom that was siliconed up and a blown light bulb that could not be changed.  The upside was that there was always someone on the room phone or reception desk who could help us.

I am happy with our choice of hotel.  I ate well, slept well and found it easy to get a bus or underground train to our destination each day.

Holiday Inn High Street Kensington
Wrights Lane, London, W8 5SP

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Rome Miscellaneous: ancient buildings, fountains and food

We had a fantastic time in Rome.  So good that even after all my blog posts on our week there, I still have some random photos to share to finish up my blogging on Rome.My first visit to Rome over 20 years ago was not great but this week has found a spot for Rome in my heart.  

The first photo above is just because Rome was so full of beautiful old buildings and cute little cars.  We spent most of our time in the old centre of Rome

This is a photo of the Colesseum from the bus.  We travelled mostly by the 87 bus and it always seemed to pass the Colosseum.  Each time brought awe.  The first time we bought tickets and tried to use them on the bus but the machine did not work so the buses were accidentally free.

We'd then pass the Forum.  Also impressive.  So many ancient buildings and statues in central Rome, side by side with modern life.

Rome is so full of pasta and pizza.  I really regret not being the blue pasta.  It looked so cool!  Pasta just seems a bit bulky and fragile to stuff into a suitcase.  We left one of our big suitcases in Edinburgh with my sister-in-law so were being cautious with adding to luggage.  (And even then we returned home with two heavy suitcases!)

One lunchtime I went alone to VEG Joy (Via Vasto, 4, 00182 Roma) , a vegan restaurant down the road from where we were staying.  Actually it is on a little laneway off Via Appia Nuova.  I was greeted by the welcome sight of a terracotta coloured wall with green tables and chairs under a large white umbrella.  It was also quite cute inside with gold leaves on a dark blue wall.

I ordered the "orange glazed tempeh served with oven baked fennel with crumble nuts and potatoes" for 15 euros.  It was very nice but quite different to what I expected.  I had thought it would be tempeh with a fennel and potato with a crumble on top.  However it was very nicely presented  slabs of tempeh with smaller chunks of baked fennel and potato and a few chopped nuts.  I would have liked a few more potatoes but it was very good and I loved the glazed tempeh and soft fennel chunks as well as the mustard sauce and roasted slices of orange.  I had hoped to return but never managed it.

Walking along the cobbled laneways of Rome was always so beautiful.  (Sylvia was not very keen on what she called "wobblestones"). 

When I read about Antica Libreria Cascianelli (Largo Febo, 15, 00186 Roma), one of the oldest bookshops in Rome, I was determined to visit.  There is something lovely about old wooden bookshelves, especially when they are surrounded by stacks on the floor.  When we entered, we encountered a sign saying to request permission to ask photos.  So I asked and it was not a problem at all.

I loved this back room and the blue all behind the shelves.  A lot of these books were war history, which seemed very in keeping with antiquarian books.  Less expected with the humour of the skeleton in the shelf.

We walked a lot around Rome and often arrived home with sore feet.  I remember stopping in the Piazza Navona and enjoying the sight of this fountain.  It was the day we were waiting for Alfredo Alla Scrofa to open for dinner.  I'd decided to go to the tour of Stadium of Domitian, billed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Sylvia decided to stay on a seat near this fountain rather than accompany me.  She was wise to save her 7 Euros (9 for me) and enjoy the above ground piazza while I went to explore the underbelly of the piazza.

I was told it was a 45 minute tour of the Stadium of Domitian.  So I thought I would be wandering through a labyrinth of ruins rather than a few ruins in one (rather large) room with some parts of the stairs to the stadium and information boards.  I tried the audioguide but found it just as useful to read the information.  While it was interesting, it was fairly generic.  Given there are so many interesting ruins to see free of charge if you wander around Rome, I would not recommend it unless you have money and time to waste.  I did not.

When I returned to Sylvia, she was enjoying watching wonderful sight of the sky darkening over the Piazza Navano.  The square was busy with tourists and locals.  Restaurants were filling up and beckonling with warm lights.  One of the less attractive parts of eating outside was the smoking at these tables.  Perhaps because I was disappointed about the underground tour, I bought my most expensive souvenir in a giftshop there before we left for dinner.

While the Piazza Navona fountains are famous and many tourist sites will direct you there.  But walk through central Rome and you will stumble across many gorgeous little squares such as this one with a fountain.  It was not hard to find an outdoor table to eat and drink with a beautiful view.

I found the nearby San Giovanni gate and old town walls far more interesting than the underground tour at the Piazza Navona.  What a waste of time to pay for that underground ruins when I had these just near my apartment.

As I have said a few times, we loved the pizza that was sold by weight in Rome.  On our final day we had a great local day.  After visiting the Lateran Basilica we ate at Pizzhoria Appio (Piazzale Appio, 4, 00183 Roma).  As you will see by the above photo, it was a great place to eat good pizza with a view of the Porta San Giovanni.  We had pizza with burrata, tomatoes and basil.  Sylvia loved the burrata but it is a bit creamy for my liking.  I enjoyed the suppli, and arancini with truffle mushroom filling in one and pesto filling in another.  Sylvia had this place on her list to try and was happy both that it was close to our apartment and that we finally got to eat there.  I even got some pizza to takeaway for dinner as it was convenient.

So ends my 13 posts about our 8 days in Rome.  It was a great part of our trip.  We really enjoyed our apartment.  It is great to have a base where you have separate sleeping quarters, a kitchen and a washing machine.  I was relieved to finally get a load of laundry washed to keep us going but the constant sirens around the apartment were not great.  Outside our apartment, it was fantastic to visit some of the iconic sights and amazing places to eat.

At the end of our trip to Rome I made the biggest mistake of the trip.  I had planned to go to Venice for one night after Rome but on our final night as I sat up late planning our next leg of travel, I realised that I should have been in Venice on that night.  I had spent a lot of time planning the accommodation and transport and had to make changes as I firmed up our itinerary.  Too late, I found I had forgotten to change our Rome accommodation from 8 to 7 days.  However, Sylvia and I agreed we had had such a wonderful time in Rome that we were fine without visiting Venice.  Travel has it challenges but also such interesting experiences.  We were just excited to head to our next destination, Zurich.

Monday 26 February 2024

Rome Street Art

When we visited Romeow Cat Bistrot in the South of Rome, Google Maps told me that some of the best street art in Rome was just near by.  So we walked to the corner of Via del Porto Fluviale and Via Ostiense to view the street art on the buildings and then walk down under the railway bridge to see more street art.  

Most of the street art in this post are from this area.  Towards the bottom are a few from central Rome.

The following street art is from central Rome.  I was especially interested in the mosaic work used to fill the cracks in the footpath.  I have read of such street art but never seen it in real life.  The last artwork is stencil art near the Lateran Basilica.