While Britain shivered waiting for Spring to arrive, I was away for Easter, in Istanbul, Turkey’s capital in all but name.

I stayed in the Beyoglu neighbourhood, which was lively and easy’ish to get to from the airport (1 metro ride, followed by a busy tram, followed by a funicular up the hill) – just over an hour, and about £3.70 all in all. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to recommend the hotel I chose (Ansen Suites) who claimed not to have my reservation, despite the fact it had been made directly through their website. Luckily I had the print out. It also faced the charming “Good Mood” bar and club directly opposite, which pumped out Donna Summer till at least 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. Ho hum. Ear plugs are a traveller’s best friend.

Istanbul is a great destination for a long weekend. About 3.5 hours from London, and heaps to see and do. Easy to get around. Great food and very friendly people. (I know the “friendly locals” is a terrible cliche, but I have always found the Turks to be fantastic, ever since I first went there as a student in 1989).

IMG_7134

Looking out from the balcony of the 360 bar and restaurant in Beyoglu, towards Ortakoy and Yildiz

The tram in Beyoglu runs up to Taksim square along busy Istiklal Avenue - a bargain at £1.15

The tram in Beyoglu runs up to Taksim square along busy Istiklal Avenue – a bargain at £1.15

Mean-looking graffiti panda in Beyoglu

Mean-looking graffiti panda in Beyoglu

Looking towards the Blue Mosque

Looking towards the Blue Mosque

Inside the Grand Bazaar - surprisingly unhassly

Inside the Grand Bazaar – surprisingly unhassly

Yum - a glass of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice ("Nar Suyu") for 4 lire or about £1.50

Yum – a glass of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice (“Nar Suyu”) for 4 lire or about £1.50

On the Galata bridge, where the locals have more important things that tourists on their mind

On the Galata bridge, where locals have more important things than tourists on their mind

A ride on an Istanbul ferry is a bargain at 3 lire (£1.15)

A ride on an Istanbul ferry is a bargain at 3 lire (£1.15)

Busy Erminou is perhaps the most tourist-friendly spot from which to catch a ferry, after you've wandered over the Galata Bridge or visited the Topkapi Palace or Hagia Sofia

Busy Erminou is perhaps the most tourist-friendly spot from which to catch a ferry, after you’ve wandered over the Galata Bridge or visited the Topkapi Palace or Hagia Sofia

Erminou

Erminou

When I first went to Istanbul in 1989, the Lonely Planet guide advised a certain spot inside Hagia Sofia where you stand and clap and you'd hear the echo all around you - something that I think just isn't possible in these days of easyJet and Ryanair

When I first went to Istanbul in 1989, the Lonely Planet guide advised a certain spot inside Hagia Sofia where you stand and clap and you’d hear the echo all around you – something that I think just isn’t possible in these days of easyJet and Ryanair

You don't have to go too far from the centre of Istanbul to feel like you're in a small Turkish town instead

You don’t have to go too far from the centre of Istanbul to feel like you’re in a small Turkish town instead

Yum - Turkish pretzels ("simitci")

Yum – Turkish pretzels (“simitci”)

Istiklal Street - Istanbul's main pedestrian thoroughfare, packed with shops and cafes - and people!

Istiklal Street – Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, packed with shops and cafes – and people!

Here’s my report on a long weekend I took in Moscow last month that appeared in the Mail on Sunday (24th Feb) ahead of new easyJet flights that are launching there from Gatwick and Moscow, with a few added photos that I took.

There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Remember that when it's -30 in Moscow

Tatiana likes Vladimir Putin and fur coats but thinks Napoleon is a total wimp. ‘Everyone talks about the harsh winter finishing off his army in 1812, but they only made it as far as October,’ says my Moscow guide. ‘Pathetic!’

As I stared across the frozen Moskva river, the sun glinting off the golden roof of the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin, I had a trickle of sympathy with the diminutive Frenchman. At least I was bundled up under half a dozen layers, thermal gloves, thick socks and a bobble hat of which Benny from Crossroads would have been proud.

Come appropriately dressed and the Russian capital can be a year-round destination. On my visit, temperatures never climbed above minus 11C during the day, but fresh snow added a charming dimension to my long weekend.

From next month (March 2013) Moscow will be easier and cheaper to get to as easyJet launches flights from Gatwick and Manchester which should bring down prices on a route historically dominated by BA and Aeroflot.

I was a student when the Soviet Union collapsed. I visited Russia twice in the Nineties – on one occasion I was pickpocketed by a drunken train guard on the St Petersburg Express; the next time I danced in Red Square at dawn with a mysterious brunette after a vodka-fuelled night.

Since then, companies such as Costa Coffee, TopShop and M&S have sprung up in Moscow, but the city and its inhabitants remain undeniably different, defiant and proud, more sure of themselves and of the future than at any time in the past few decades.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square

I spent my time with Tatiana in Red Square and at the Kremlin, which is an absolute must. You can easily spend a day at the latter, but arrive early to get a timed ticket for the fabulous exhibits housed in the Armoury.

My guide, Tatiana

We also explored quirkier sites such as Novodevichy cemetery, where Sergei Prokofiev, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Boris Yeltsin are all buried. ‘You English love cemeteries,’ said Tatiana as she tried to hurry me along. ‘I find that very strange.’

Novodevichy cemetery

In the afternoon I was let loose on my own and tackled the city’s famous metro system, with its ornate stations bedecked with chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass, frescoes, murals and tributes to glorious Soviet workers who, history eventually showed, weren’t quite so glorious after all.

Moscow metro - it's quite a revolution

One trip cost me just 28 roubles (60p) and trains arrived at least every three minutes. Prepare to get lost unless you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, although after the first few trips it becomes easier.

Park Kultury (ie Gorky Park) station

Eventually I found my way back to my hotel, the imposing Radisson Royal which, in the Fifties, was the tallest hotel in the world.

The Radisson hotel (formerly the Ukraine - in the 1950s it was the world's tallest hotel)

Later, I met up with 24-year-old Maria Motyleva. Last year, she and several advertising industry colleagues set up It’s Sooo Russian to guide visitors around unusual sides of the capital. The team organises everything from jam sessions with local musicians to trips to suburban flea markets, and are busy organising their own music festival this autumn.

My guide Maria Motyleva in Zvenigorod

Like many young Russians, Maria speaks excellent English and has travelled widely. She helped me buy a ticket at Moscow’s Belorussky station and we set out for a 75-minute trip to the town of Zvenigorod.

Our journey took us past endless rows of functional Seventies-built tower blocks, before the scenery changed to fields and then birch forests.

After arriving in Zvenigorod, Maria and I hopped on a bus that took us to the spectacular 14th Century Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery and – even more jaw-dropping – the golden Rozhdestvensky Cathedral.

Zvenigorod

Inside, bearded monks went about their business while groups of fur-clad babushkas prayed in silence.

A nearby cafe served cheap and delicious borscht with sour cream, and we bought bread and pastries from the bakery next door for the return journey. That evening, back in Moscow, we met up with Maria’s friend Lena to visit an exhibition on Soviet life during the Fifties and Sixties.

Most of the paintings were of women with mournful eyes, while political posters revealed that Russians were as paranoid about the US as Americans were about communists. We ended up in Kam­chatka, a retro bar on Ulitsa Kuz­netsky Most, serving nostalgic snacks, beer and Soviet ‘champagne’ from behind a canteen-­style counter.

It was packed to the raft­ers with youngsters singing along to Russian pop music from 20 years ago, the kind of cheesy stuff that would water the eyes of even the most ardent Eurovision fans. My eyes welled up too. The Nineties? Retro? Already? Moscow is a city that seems proud of its past, increasingly confident about its future but still uncertain about how it should reflect on a turbulent 20th Century – all in all, plenty to keep you going for a weekend.

The arrival of easyJet doesn’t just mean we’ll be unleashing groups of stag party lads dressed as Bat­ man and Robin on unsuspecting Muscovites. It also means we get to welcome more ordinary Russians to Britain with the lure of Primark, Marmite, Boris bikes, baked beans and One Direction.

I’m not quite sure what Tatiana’s going to make of that lot.

Me and a snowy statue of Tolstoy

Regent Holidays offers three nights on a B&B basis at Hotel Izmailovo Gamma-Delta from £360pp including easyJet flights from Gatwick or Manchester. There’s a £220pp supplement to stay at the Radisson Royal. It’s Sooo Russian offers tailor-made guiding in Moscow from £85 per day for up to three people. EasyJet flies to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Aeroexpress trains run frequently from there to Paveletsky station in about 40 minutes, from where you can transfer to the metro. A one-way ticket is £7. A tourist visa for Russia costs £75

(I suppose I should legally say copywrite on this is with Associated Newspapers, but as I wrote it……..)

 

 

Well ah do declare – I’m sorry, I don’t know if anyone actually talks like that in the south of the USA but my childhood images were formed by one Miss Penelope Pitstop – if my favourite foodie, Ms Erika Rose, she of Musette Bakery in Brooklyn, hasn’t just gone and spent time in New Orleans and sent me back some amusing musings on her time there, dangnabbit!

I must be honest – New Orleans was never really a to-do for me. I just picture loud, rowdy college kids drinking on Bourbon Street and not much else. But, having read Erika’s recommendations on where to eat, and the descriptions of all the delicious food, it now definitely is on my 2013 list.

So if you’re heading down there and want to know where to eat in the Big Easy, read on, y’all.

The author and Mr Henry Myers about to eat.

“Yes, a dark time passed over this land, but now there is something like light.”  So says Dave Eggers, in his 2009 tome to New Orleans, Zeitoun, and so say I, after a recent long weekend visit with friends to the home of jazz, po-boys, and Ignatius J. Reilly.   New Orleans is a place like no other place I’ve been in the United States, all at once American and French and Spanish and other, familiar and alien, old and new.  But, mostly, delicious.

It was the food in New Orleans that always enticed me, the promise of praline everything, fried everything, gumbo’ed everything.  And, on that front, New Orleans did not disappoint.  Our first day in town, we awoke and walked our way through the French Quarter to Cafe du Monde, a well-known stop for coffee and beignets, fried fritters covered with powdered sugar, and a staple of New Orleans cuisine.  We took a seat at our table after a ten-minute wait outside, and, five minutes later, the table was covered with powdered sugar.  An order of beignets and coffee with chicory for everyone.  The taste of warm dough and sugar melting in our mouths.  Six happy stomachs.  We walked off those beignets with a wander around the French Market, a series of shops and buildings on the Mississippi River that has been around since the 1800s.

All that was left of the beignets, once the scoffers of New Orleans had done their work

A quick beignet-induced nap later, and we were off to Acme Oyster House.  After another short wait (expect to wait at least a few minutes at many New Orleans hotspots on the weekend), we took our seats, and immediately placed an order for raw and chargrilled oysters.  Gulf oysters, I discovered, are in a class of their own, far bigger and sweeter than the many Wellfleet and Pacific oysters I have known and loved.  But, it was the chargrilled version that changed my oyster-loving life.  Grilled in a pan with Romano cheese, white whine, lemon juice and Creole seasoning, the oysters, and the sauce that was left to soak up with bread when they were eaten, blew me away.  I had barely processed the experience when out came my Fried Peace Maker Po-Boy.  Already a fan of po-boys of any kind, this was, by far, the best of the best.  A combination of fried oysters and shrimp, generously seasoned, nestled inside two pieces of bread lathered with Tabasco-infused mayonnaise, this is the sandwich to end all sandwiches.  Even the bits of shrimp and mayo that fell out of the back of the sandwich were gobbled up in a matter of minutes.  And the Boo Fries we had on the side, golden fries topped with roast beef gravy and cheese?  They disappeared, too.  Acme, you sure know how to treat a visitor.  New to my bucket list is to someday join your 15 Dozen Club (that’s 15 dozen or more oysters consumed in one sitting, and I think quite a lofty goal.).

It is a testament to the power of New Orleans food (and our stomachs) that we were ready to eat again by dinnertime.  Off to Cochon  we went (a ten minute taxi ride if you’re staying near or in the French Quarter).  Cochon specializes in Cajun Southern cooking, and is run out of a former warehouse by two chefs with three James Beard Awards between them.  We dove right in, and started off our night with a trio we lovingly referred to as “gator, cheeks, and feet”.  First up was fried alligator, tender and hot, served with a creamy garlic aioli.  Next were the cheeks: pork cheeks glazed with cane syrup and served with mushrooms, and, that other Southern staple, corn grits.  And finally, finally, a pig’s foot, stuffed with cabbage and apples.  I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite among three strong (and filling) appetizers, but, if I had to do it again (if only!), I’d have the pork cheeks.  They made me inordinately happy, and they felt like home, even all the way down South.  The Louisiana cochon, the restaurant’s namesake, was a formidable main course, but the real standout was the rabbit & dumplings, another warm, comforting dish that struck all the right notes.  It was a most memorable meal.  Did I mention the deep fried homemade beef jerky on our salad?  No?  Well, it’s also available in the Cochon Butcher shop next store (well worth a visit in its own right), and it tasted just as good on the flight home.

A brunch of softshell crab, grits and poached eggs at Elizabeth’s

Twelve hours later, still full and dreaming of pork, we headed out to explore a different neighborhood, the Upper Ninth Ward, and a different kind of Sunday brunch, New Orleans-style.  Elizabeth’s held the promise of praline bacon, and that bacon, coupled with biscuits and gravy and an entire softshell crab, fried and served with a poached egg, made my morning.  Crisp, salty and sweet at the same time, topped with pecans, the bacon itself summed up everything I fell so quickly in love with in New Orleans.  When we walked outside, full and happy, we were greeted by two young boys, marching down the street, playing a drum and a trumpet, and it was at that moment that I knew that New Orleans had captured a piece of my heart.

Galatoire's

Another piece went that night, when we headed out for our “last hoorah” meal, the one we had imagined for months, the one that brought me to New Orleans, the legendary Galatoire’s.  Galatoire’s rightly calls itself “the grand dame of New Orleans’ old-line restaurants”, and has served authentic French Creole cuisine for four generations.  That cuisine includes mouth-watering versions of Eggs Sardou (poached eggs, artichokes, creamed spinach and Hollandaise sauce), shrimp cocktail, Meunière Sauce, and jumbo lump crabmeat on top of anything.  And I mean anything.  In fact, one of the true joys of stepping into Galatoire’s is the waitstaff, who are not only polite and exceedingly professional, but who aim to serve and to please your every gastronomic desire, all while sitting in an open dining room under chandeliers and tiled floors.  Whatever you like, however you like it cooked, it’s yours.  Galatoire’s was an experience, from the red fish to the bread pudding to the wine list to the gentleman who greeted us at the door.  I can’t imagine it ever being replicated anywhere else, and, for a few hours, I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else either.  That New Orleans light, it lives here.

No night in New Orleans, not even the most delicious one, would be complete without music.  I can highly recommend Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a quaint old building on the brighter side of Bourbon Street (for those of us who aren’t into the more traditional Bourbon Street experience).  Grab a drink and sit at the edge of the piano, bathed only in candlelight, and you’ll never want to leave.  For jazz, it’s hard to beat The Maple Leaf Bar in Carrollton.  If you’re lucky you’ll be there the same night as The Dirty Dozen Brass Band!  Another well-known club, popular since the 1970s, is Tipitina’s in Upper New Orleans.  Or just stroll along Frenchmen Street, a short walk from the French Quarter, where music echoes from every bar (and even on the street).

Taking it to the streets

I may have come to New Orleans for the food, but I left with so many other memories.  I’d highly recommend riding the St. Charles Streetcar line through the Garden District, an ideal (and cheap: round trip for $2.50) way to see the old New Orleans houses from the comfort of a streetcar line which dates back to 1835.  New Orleans is also known for its above-ground cemeteries, and a walk through St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the best place to start, as it’s both the oldest and the closest to the French Quarter.  Just wait until you see the pyramid Nicholas Cage has made for his afterlife.  Afterwards, stroll through the French Quarter for a drink at Napoleon House  on Chartres Street.  Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte was set to exile in the building from France, and you can almost picture it when you step inside and take a seat at the stately bar.  For those of us who are fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, famously set in New Orleans, there’s a statue of the unforgettable main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, at the former site of the D.H. Holmes department store, on the 800 block of Canal Street, just outside the French Quarter.  And, if you’re into cycling as much as I am, you’re in luck: there are plenty of resources for cyclists in the area, including the New Orleans Cycle Club, which arranges group rides, and Rouler, a mobile bike mechanic and fitting service for cyclists of all levels.

We stayed at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans, which I’d highly recommend both for the location and the nightly jazz.  For a longer-term vacation rental, I’d suggest River House, a guest house a few blocks from Frenchmen Street (one unit and two unit condos, currently (Nov 2012) starting at $345 a night for short term rentals, prices vary longer-term).

Further afield, if you have the time, is Mosca’s, a family-style Italian restaurant in Avondale, Louisiana, about a half hour from New Orleans (and well worth the trek).

With many thanks to Hank and Natalia Lauricella, a New Orleans native and his New Orleans-loving daughter, who share, among other things, my fierce love of food.”

COPY & PHOTOS = MS ERIKA ROSE. So don’t cut & paste and pretend it’s yours y’all or we’ll come and get you. Seriously.

www.neworleansonline.com, www.louisianatravel.com

From the UK Bon Voyage Travel is my recommendation to tailor make trips to New Orleans

Erika’s bakery in New York = Musette

HUGE THANKS ERIKA!

"OK this time Henry I want wistful with a hint of hungover"