A Travel & Lifestyle Blog

The Art of Slow Living - Manoir de Surville, Normandy

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Stopping at the Manoir was a pleasant surprise for us.
We were on our way to the Loire Valley in search of chateaux, good food, butter, wine and ultimately some breathing space, in the countryside. We wanted to break up the trip, but we never thought that this place would make us feel so much at home.

After two hours driving along the Normandy coast, we turned inlands towards Haute Normandy and in the sleepy village of Surville, amongst green fields and old wobbly barns, we turned into the gates of a picture-perfect, Haute Normandie-style barn; the gorgeous Manoir de Surville.
 
The cutest welcome - Cami, the owner, coming out to greet us as we drove in, dragging an old wooden cart for the luggage behind her, with her little daughter in it! Such a heart-warming scene.  

Dusk over Surville, the beginning of a slow-paced, pleasurable evening in the French countryside.
Love the colours and the warm light from the candles in the lounge
The owner's original property on the right, through the window - a traditional Haute Normandie family home - what a dream!
The "honesty bar", equipped with all of the good stuff!

Cami and her husband have converted her family property to a cross between a boutique hotel and an AirBnb, respecting the village's traditional architecture and making sure that guests feel at home. Cami even called us a couple of days before our arrival to check if we needed dinner reservations, inquire about what time we'll be arriving and answer any questions we might have had.
A lovely touch, much appreciated later on in our journey...
 
The living room is straight out of "Country Living" magazine pages; shabby chic greys, terracotta and beige tones all with sweet low lighting and a crackling fire going.
 
There is an honesty bar, equipped with all of the right stuff, too.
Just pour yourself a tipple and remember to write it down to the little notebook by the library!
Cami encouraged us to try a local gin, “C’est Nous”, produced in Caen, infused in Calvados barbells. It’s one of the smoothest gins I’ve ever tasted, so flavoursome!

We poured ourselves a “quick one” around 7:30ish before going out for dinner at the Hostelliere d’Acquigny. At 9, I had to remind my husband that if we didn’t get going, there’ll be no dinner!
We felt so chilled "at home", sipping away on our smooth Gin & Tonic, chatting by the fire!


 
Morning view from our window, sunshine at last!
Morning coffee in the sunshine

Dinner at the Hostelliere d'Acquigny, in Acquigny.
There is a very good restaurant in the Manoir de Surville, but unfortunately it was closed on the night we visited. Instead Cami suggested we drive down to the next village to the Hostelliere d'Acquigny, where their own chef came from. As she put it "don't be put off by the purple and orange walls, the food is really good"! She wasn't wrong.

So once you are past the faux leather table tops, you get to experience the chef's amouche bouche: Crème brule foie gras with strawberries! Delicate layers of flavour, first the foie gras, then a slight sweetness from the caramel and finally subtle strawberry. Consider our bouches delicately amused!
My husband was tired from the long drive and his French hadn't kicked in yet so he asked if they had a menu in English, the response was: "no! but we have an English woman".
Yes, we looked at each other with eyes wide open. Yes, we giggled.
The cooked or "warm" foie gras starter was lighter than light, probably one of the best I've had.
My husband on the other hand, still has nightmares because he didn't realise it would be the actual liver, he expected a pate, but I was super-chuffed.
Have you ever heard of that hideous expression "melts in your mouth"? Well, just this once I'm going to alter it a bit and say "it melted before it even touched your mouth", so delicate and airy. My husband who is not too keen on live things liked the accompaniment of onions and lentils, but I thought they were a distraction.
Finally, Hunky Dory with cumin spiced carrot puree for me and medium-done lamb for my husband.

Word of advise on ordering meats in France: they tend to undercook cuts, so if you'd normally ask for a medium-rare in UK, try medium or medium-well done in France - oh, you'll be snubbed, but at  least you'll get what you want!

Warm foie gras 
Amuse Bouche: Crème brule foie gras with strawberries, cheese puffs and marinated monkfish
Top right: Hunky Dory with spiced carrot puree. Bottom right: fresh Asparagus, in season!
Millefeuille with strawberries
Back to  the Manoir.
There will be a pool by next summer, which completes this home-away-from-home and makes this place perfect for a long weekend from London.
It's just two and a half hours drive from Calais and there is lots to visit in the area, especially around the Normandy coast and around the charming Les Andelys.
 
At breakfast, we asked the owner what time they wanted us out and he said, “whenever you are ready” . Then, as he was walking away he turned around and said “relaaax”!
This sums up the whole attitude in the Manoir. Nothing is rushed and nothing is off limits. You are treated more like a houseguest than a hotel guest.

So I took my lovely cup of coffe and went to sit outside in the sunshine, before our drive down to the Loire Valley. First ten minutes of peace I've had in months! x 

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View of the village from the Manoir

Fatehpur Sikri - The Deserted Capital of India



"Panch Mahal", the "Five-storey Palace" incorporating architectural aspects of a Buddhist Temple.

Colourful. 
Peaceful. 
Deserted.
A perfectly kept, Mughal city. 

Fatehpur Sikri was the purpose-built, Mughal capital of India, built by Emperor Akbar. 
Now it’s a red tourist destination, an open air museum, surrounded by green lawns. It was originally deserted after only 10 years of use, due to lack of water. This archaeological site is half-way between Jaipur and Agra and I had never heard of it before our tour to India. But it was worth the stop. 


Let me tell you about our drive from Jaipur to Fatehpur Sikri first. Headache comes to mind. And admiration. After a wonderful evening under the Jaipuri sky and a slow start to the day around the blooming gardens of Chowki Dhani, driving on an Indian motorway was as contrasting an experience, as everything else in India. It involved relentless beeping when it came to overtaking. This seems to be in use in general, instead of indicating and when the drive is 4 hours long, there comes the headache. Our driver's side mirror was completely broken and the car's acceleration was painfully slow, but that didn't stop him from "racing" down the motorway at a top speed of 60mph! 
 
We were all holding our breaths in, when camels were lazily walking against the traffic on the motorway or when we had to overtake a family of five on a motorbike, or when we had to overtake tall stacks of grass topped with a ladder, seemingly floating on the motorway, only to realise that there was a motorbike underneath it all. An eye-opening - often stressful - experience. But we also saw people showering in their front yard, out there in the open, waving and smiling under the morning sun, as we drove by! 
  

There is a little uphill walk from the car-park to the gate of the site. Make sure that you agree with the  rickshaw driver that they are taking you all the way up to King's Gate, outside Salim Chisti's Tomb. 

On the steps of King's Gate, a little boy was wondering around, begging in Hindi mixed with the occasional English. I was sitting there waiting for the rest of my friends. I didn’t respond to him straight away. I knew that the moment I opened my purse there would be a dozen other people asking for money. So, I just sat there, taking it all in. The boy gave up, sat on the steps next to me and started talking...
”England, America? Deutch, Deutch!” He proclaimed! 
“Ha, England” I replied, that’s "yes", The "E" in England is pronounced as in "pet".
I continued in my basic Hindi: "Why are you not at school?" 
He shrugged his shoulders, "I don’t know". 
I said to him that I’ll buy him a drink, but I’m not giving him money. 
"Cola chahiye", he wanted a Coke. So I got him a coke and myself a Lilt and we just sat there looking at people passing by together. 
No this was no great conversation, but this is the very reason I love learning foreign languages. You get to talk to people that you'd never meet or speak to otherwise. 

Diwan-i-Khas - The Emperor's audience hall. 

One of the most noteworthy buildings is Diwan-I-Khas, the emperor's audience hall. This type of room - or rather hall - can be found around many palaces in India; the one in the Red Fort in Delhi was spectacularly made out of marble, embroidered with coloured, floral mosaics, to accommodate audiences for Shah Jahan. This one in Fatehpur Siri, is made out of red clay and includes a heavily curved central pillar that seems to hold the whole thing up.

My favourite was Panch Mahal, a five-storey building, with Buddhist temple architectural aspects that is believed to have had glass panels between the 84 columns holding it up. It must have shimmered and reflected all of these lovely and earthy reds and terracotta colours in the sunshine. It's close to the harem buildings hence it's believed to have been used for entertainment.

What I find fascinating about Akbar was that he was an inclusive leader for his time, trying to reconcile religious characteristics of his subjects. He was married to Muslim and Hindu princesses and allowed them the freedom of exploring and practising their religions. And one of the central buildings in Fatehpur Sirkri is Birbal's house. He was Akbar's Prime Minister and a Hindu. His court was dotted with poets and singers of the time from all corners of his empire. A rather progressive thinker.


Janta Darbar - The Public courtyard where games and audiences took place.
 

Sundays in Brill - Windmills and Flirting Cocker Spaniels

 
A sunny, winter Sunday! What else can you really ask for?
It's the perfect excuse to put your wellies on, roam around the fields and then when you can't feel your face anymore, walk into a warm pub, cosy up in a big armchair with a cup of coffee and breath in the burning wood smell from the lit fireplace.
I tell you - you have to get out of London!
 
On the Sunday, just before the Big Chill that hit Britain last week, the weather was so gloriously sunny that we just couldn't allow for it to go to waste.
So out we ventured on the Chiltern Hills, in search of Brill Windmill.
After driving through the unexpectedly beautiful Long Crendon, dotted with old barns, thatched roofs and crooked beamed cottages, we got to Brill.

The Windmill is on the edge of the village, standing there, on its' own amongst green hills.
No entry fees, no fences, just a 16th century post windmill. No biggie?
The terrain around the Windmill is interesting - sharp gorge-like ditches and tiny little molehills covered in grass. The views are amazing, all the way to the Oxfordshire plains.
The scene is a cross between a Dutch Rembrandt painting set in Constable's English countryside.  

If you have a dog, bring it along too! People walking their dogs all around the village and the windmill, or to be fair, the dogs were setting the pace in most occasions!
A Jack Russell shooting around in all directions like a rocket.
A baby Bulldog with the sniffles! Ha!
A Dachshund, aka sausage dog, with a little tartan coat on. We felt really left out, not having a four-legged pal with us. 



Even the village pub is called The Pointer and welcomes dogs too!
We lodged ourselves in big, comfy armchairs and order coffees with Amaretto.
On a neighbouring sofa by the fireplace, a lady was rocking a baby in her arms, so we tried to be quiet, thinking she is trying to put the baby to sleep... only to realise eventually that the baby was an old and frail greyhound that has to be kept in a blanket. That's dedication!
This certainly didn't put a little cheeky Cocker Spaniel off, trying to flirt with the Greyhound! 
 
I almost lost my husband, as plates loaded with Sunday roast were going by.
My eye caught some humongous Yorkshires passing, we looked at each other and said: "we are definitely coming back for lunch".
In the meantime, alongside our coffees, we had the most interesting and moist date cake, topped with butterscotch froth and Weetabix ice cream - so clever and utterly delicious.
 
 
 

The Village Pub, Barnsley

 
Innovation doesn't always come in big, shiny packages.
It does come from a deep understanding of the product you are developing though. 
 
After a relaxing afternoon spent at Barnsley House Spa, we were directed to The Village Pub, just across the road, for dinner. No, not "a" village pub.
I have roamed enough around the Cotswolds, to know that local ingredients can always be trusted to produce magnificent meals. So, I was looking forward to this meal, as with any other meal around the area, but I wasn't expecting such interesting dishes.
 
The menu was brand new. We were greeted by the owner, who chatted to us about simple cocktails, fragrant with local aromas...Rose & Elderflower, Rhubarb & Raspberry.
 
We made ourselves comfortable and tried:
Venison tartar with Charcoal Mayonnaise and egg yolk.
Twice baked Cheddar cheese Soufflé.
Goats' cheese Pannacotta with Ginger Crumble and Beetroot. 
Roast lamb with fondant Potatoes and Mash - double trouble. 
 

Venison tartar and Charcoal mayonnaise - not for the fainthearted!

Leg of Lamb with a treat of two types of tatties - fondant and mash!

A cosy setting for the scrumptious Cheese Soufflé

The reason I'm telling you about this place is the Goat's cheese Pannacotta.
The idea that you can find innovative dishes in an un-assuming village pub, on a cold, February, Monday evening, gives me joy.   

Barnsley House Spa Day - Cotswolds

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What a gorgeous place!
Barnsley House is everything you have imagined the Cotswolds to be like - a bijou, old manor house, set against green rolling hills and cosy fireplaces lit inside. 
 
Driving around the Cotswolds country lanes on a January afternoon with my little sis was blissful and just in time, the sun came out! I have been going on and on about how the weather has been so grey and depressing and I was praying for a bit of sunshine on our girlie day out, so we could enjoy the outdoors heated pool at the spa. What do you know? As soon as we navigated around Oxford, there comes the sun, over the gorgeous rolling hills of Burford.
 
The best part of the drive - Bibury. I have a soft spot for this place, because it was one of the first villages I ever visited around the Cotswolds; a weekend in neighbouring Coln St Alwyns, is the reason I fell in love with the area and the very reason I started this blog - I just had to share with the world that there is this feel-good place, a corner of the English countryside, where everything is still simpler, quieter and balanced with nature.
 


The Spa is seemingly hidden away, tucked amongst greenery, a short walk from the main House, but with a wonderful view of the surrounding hills.
It's on the small side, but the facilities are wonderful. In the summer, you can utilise the lovely garden, built around a fire place too. There is a lavender-scented steam room and sauna and the best feature - an outdoors heated pool.
There is nothing, I mean nothing, that should stop you from braving the winter chill momentarily, in order to experience swimming out in nature, in steaming hot waters. It feels like floating in a duvet, with a gorgeous green view. Every muscle in your body relaxes and that includes your brain too.
 
The lounge is a gorgeous sun room, filled with mid-afternoon sun. My sis and I, both went for the Half Day package and I would suggest that you go for the afternoon slot for two reasons. Firstly, the sun - on a winter afternoon, it becomes part of the experience and in the summer you can enjoy the sunset, next to the outdoors fireplace, not to forget swimming in the heated pool at sunset. Secondly, dinner at The Village Pub. You have the option to have lunch in the Spa, or dinner allowance for the pub - go for the latter, their dishes and service are exceptional.    

Our hour-long treatment was just what my achy shoulders needed, in order to finally find some relief. I think I almost drifted to semi-napping state during the facial. By the way, I am not one to introduce cosmetics, as I have sensitive skin and stick to my usual products, but the Elemis Soothing Apricot Toner, is something I order as soon as I got back home. It had a cooling effect, but felt quite nourishing too, great for sensitive skin.



Just as we finished our treatments, the sun was setting.
What a amazing time to be swimming outside, amongst the vibrant indigo sky, catching the last purple and pink hues of the sun in the distance! Well, there one thing that made us move...hunger and the prospect of dinner in The Village Pub, across the street!

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The main House in full moonlight...
 

Jaipur - The Pink Lady





"I lost my voice in Jaipur"...and so the story usually goes, when I talk about my first time in the Pink City.

Khabutar in Pyar - my Hindi version of "pigeons in love"

We arrived in Jaipur early in the morning, having caught the Shatabdi train, from Old Delhi.
Now that's an experience and a half! No, not the train itself, that was great!
But Old Delhi's station? Pheeew! The people! 
People covered up in white sheets on the platform floors, right in the middle of it all, people on wooden boxes, all sleeping. No, not homeless people, normal people, waiting to catch the train! And then, once trains started pulling into the station, the chai-walas run to fill up everybody's cups with hot, fragrant tea. Right there, I also saw the weirdest job in the world: people sweeping the train racks! One hand-held broom in each hand, sweeping! The train tracks!

The train-ride was brilliant: First Class AC is what you want to go for, for a whopping £12, bottled water and breakfast included! Initially, I had second thoughts about having breakfast on the train. But the smells soon travelled down the carriages and scrabbled eggs sounded perfect.  A group of Europeans travelling with Kuoni turned up their noses, when the waiter came to take the breakfast order -  I'm going to leave you guessing for their nationality. Their eyes opened wide though, when they heard us - the "other" Europeans- ordering everything to our hearts' content,  in Hindi, nevertheless.

My favourite part of the journey was passing through the countryside, seeing women working in the fields, in their colourful sarees, dotting the brown earth with splashes of orange, pink, red and yellow. It reminded me an old Hindi movie posters. These women have such resilience.

View from Jaigarh Fort

First things first: if you are heading to the Amber Palace and want to catch an elephant ride, do so before 11 o'clock. Otherwise it's too hot for the gentle beasts to climb up the hill.

We headed to the lesser known Jaigarh Fort, sitting right above Jaipur city, with it's fortifications visible from Jantar Mantar down in the city centre.
Here you'll find the biggest cannon on wheels, in India, because the Fort used to be the main artillery production place for the Rajputs - the local royals. But there is also a walled garden, sitting on top of this dessert hill, bursting with green and flowers. Throughout the royal apartments you'll see puppet theatre performances, a local customary pass-time.
It wasn't swamped with tourists so we took it easy, climbed up and down stairs and fortifications, run around to catch uninterrupted views over the four points in the horizon and took lots and lots of pictures.

 
Jal Mahal (literally, the "Lake Palace") seen from Jaigarh Fort's fortifications

Down in the city centre, we circumvented the monkeys around Jaleb Chowk, a square, surrounded by old royal buildings, making our way to the Hawa Mahal. Don't let your guard down, these little monkeys will be attracted to anything shiny and will come claim it, boldly. If you want to leave the square, the only way is one of the four gates, where, they wait for people to segregate, so that they can snatch away what they please, easier. Smart, little things!

If you think that the Hawa Mahal is pretty on the outside, wait until you go inside.
Pay attention: Do not miss that, for the world!
In the late afternoon leave the chaotic main road behind you and enter the quite courtyard of Hawa Mahal, from the little alleyway on the back. The contrasting peace and quiet will hit you straight away. Climb up the stairs and visit the rooms were the harem ladies used to peek out at the world without being seen. Why late afternoon? Because you'll feel you are in a ruby, or a sapphire, or an emerald... all of the windows are stained and the sun shines through them straight on the marble floors, so you have splashes of coloured light dancing all around you - no words can describe how majestic that it.

Inside the Hawa Mahal: Gorgeous, dancing colours in the afternoon light
Jantar Mantar - medieval astronomical instruments, in Rajput's Sawai Jai Singh's back garden! 
Jantar Mantar

We stayed just on the outskirts of Jaipur, in Chokhi Dhani cultural village.
This is a resort set out as a traditional Rajasthani village, where we got 3 rooms set around a private courtyard, a "Nohara".
This is a good place to stay if you come with children, because in the evenings, the resort opens up its cultural village with elephant and camel rides, traditional Rajasthani dance performances and my absolute favourite: dinner by the stars, cross-legged out in the dessert! 
   
Our Nohara's courtyard in Chokhi Dhani

Morning prayers to Ganesh ji in Chokhi Dhani

Oh if you are wondering why I lost my voice in Jaipur, here it goes: Walking down the street, I was swamped by people selling me everything they owned, didn't own and would have ever owned. So in my starter's Hindi, all I kept saying was "Bas! Nahi chahiye" (Enough! I don't want it!), and in the time it took them to realise that the gori lady was speaking in Hindi, I was rushing to get away from them, the dust and the noise; in the process - I lost my voice.  
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