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Darkness was already descending at 4pm when we left Glenturret, drove through the town of Crieff and headed south down the A822 towards Stirling. Behind us lay the Perthshire Hills, ahead the conservation village of Muthill, known for its high number of listed buildings and the ruins of an ancient church. This was the location for surprise number 3: Barley Bree.

Once the village inn, Barley Bree is now a restaurant with rooms, run for the last ten years by chef Fabrice Bouteloup and his Scottish wife Alison (Alison aiming one day to become a Master of Wine). They’re a great and skilful team, with an obvious love for what they do.

And here’s the proof: two AA Red Rosettes, entries in both the Good Food Guide 2017 and Good Hotel Guide 2017 and, as we read in the Scottish Field that day, the place where Andrew Fairlie - the two Michelin star chef at Gleneagles - comes for Sunday lunch sometimes.

Upstairs at Barley Bree are six comfortable bedrooms, downstairs a smallish bar and a very cosy restaurant, with the work of marine wildlife sculptor Sam MacDonald on the stone walls. From a choice of three starters, four mains and three desserts we opted for ham hock terrine and hand dived scallops (starters), Dexter rib-eye steaks and a shared apple Tarte Tatin, Fabrice’s signature dish.

It was a hugely enjoyable meal, full of flavour and served by friendly and knowledgeable staff. Dexter is the smallest British breed of cattle, the beef favoured by many top chefs because of its outstanding quality.

Afterwards Fabrice took us into the kitchen and showed us the Athanor cooking range. On the hob was a pan with over 20 litres of stock (beef bones and vegetables), slowly being reduced by half and then, once wine had been added, reduced again. ‘When we’re busy we’ll do this four times a week,’ he said.

The next morning after a full Scottish breakfast we headed home. But not before we spotted Fabrice, carrying a tray of his freshly baked crusty bread. We’d already savoured the bread at breakfast, with lovely butter from Katy Rodger’s Knockraich Farm.

Barley Bree is closed for a short break until Wednesday, January 11.

You may have heard a lot about hygge this year. After cool design, foraged food and rather bleak TV drama, hygge has become the next big Scandi thing, although in truth it’s been around for a very long time indeed. Hygge (pronounced hooga) is a Danish word which roughly translates into cosiness and conviviality and evokes lots of other warm, simple pleasures as well: chilling out with friends in a small café, lighting candles on winter evenings, that sort of thing.

There are plenty of books on the subject - quite a number out this year - but if you want a serious handle on hygge, head for Denmark at Christmas time and savour the real joy of cosy. Its capital, Copenhagen, is a good place to start, a small, hyggelig kind of city with plenty of 18th and 19th century buildings (and bang up to date ones as well), narrow cobbled streets, stretches of waterway (canals, lakes and the sea), small squares and elegant copper spires. It’s friendly, relaxed, easily walkable, easily cycleable (cycle paths everywhere) and almost everyone speaks English.

We had a few days in Copenhagen a year ago - photographs from that time - and, as ever before Christmas, the combination of architecture, shop window dressing, street lighting, candles and beautiful (often natural) decorations made it a joy to walk around. Danes don’t have a monopoly on candles but they sure know how to burn them, with flickering lights in cafés, bars, shops and restaurants. Everywhere. As for the window dressing and decorations, you’ll quickly realise that Danish design doesn’t end with clothes, bridges, lamps and furniture.

We based ourselves at welcoming Hotel Alexandra (pics), known for its Danish mid-century designer furniture (Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Verner Panton). The hotel is close to Radhusplasen, the city hall square, and a short walk from Strøget, the main pedestrian shopping street that links Radhusplasen with Kongens Nytorv. Allow about half an hour to walk its entire length, considerably more if you’re ducking in and out of the shops.

Tradition demands that the first thing we do on any visit to Copenhagen is to eat a pølse from what now appears to be a diminishing number of pølse vogns (sausage vans), dotted around the city streets. There’s something very Danish - almost hyggelig - about clustering around these food vans in winter.

And here’s another tradition. ‘Welcome to the world’s happiest nation. That calls for a Carlsberg,’ said the sign in the arrivals lounge of Kastrup Airport. Denmark, of course, is the home of Carlsberg and it is one of its brands, Tuborg, that every year produces a Christmas beer, Tuborg Julebryg.

Gløgg (spiced, mulled wine) is also a big thing at Christmas, one of the city’s oldest bars, Hviids Vinstue serving it every year from November 11. For a more contemporary bar try Lidkoeb or Brus.

Our first day was very much a wandering one, taking in the sights and lights along Strøget and its parallel streets, admiring the windows in stores like Illums Bolighus (centre of modern design with a little shop for Christmas decorations, pic), George Jensen, Royal Copenhagen Porcelain and the two department stores of Illum and Magasin du Nord (pic).

We had coffee and pastries at Conditoriet La Glace, then later broke for lunch at Sankt Annae. This is a delightful little place where the menu includes about 30 types of open sandwich (smørrebrød), a traditional food that Denmark is well known for. Danish schnapps are available too, a perfect accompaniment to the herring, gravadlax and smoked eel.

Although new Nordic cuisine has put Copenhagen on the food map, more ‘traditional’ restaurants like Sankt Annae are still much in evidence. Schønnemann, Restaurant Kronborg and L’Alsace are three others.

Heading back to Strøget we made our way up another pedestrianised street called Købmagergade, past the Round Tower (pic) to Nørreport station where just behind the station is the popular food market known as Torvehallerne KBH (pic). More than 50 stands are spread between two halls, with a few places to eat and drink as well.

A different type of food hall - Copenhagen Street Food (pic) - is located on Paper Island, so called because of the huge buildings there that once stored paper. To reach the collection of food stalls, trucks and containers (offering tastes from all over the world), we took a water taxi from Nyhavn, the 17th century harbour area where bars, cafes and restaurants line the canal. Nyhavn’s Faergekro is one of many.

From the street food building we could see the mightily impressive Copenhagen Opera House (pic) which opened in 2005. It was built in line with Amalienborg, home of the Danish royal family, and with the Marble Church, both on the other side of the water.

There were two other modern waterside buildings we wanted to look at too: the Royal Danish Playhouse (popped in for a quick cup of coffee) and the 1999 extension to the Royal Danish Library, known as the Black Diamond. Design, design: never far away.

A longer trip over the water, 35 minutes across that famous bridge, took us to Malmo in Sweden. But as the weather was so grim - grim enough for a Scandi Noir - we didn’t stay long. Thank goodness for the large lamp (pic) that lit up the day. Coffee and cake were welcome at Andersen Bakery (pic) near Copenhagen’s main station on our return.

Right beside the bakery is Tivoli, the famous amusement park and pleasure garden. Generations of families have come here for the walks and flowers, the rides and restaurants but what awaits them at Christmas is an experience even more magical and memorable.

We spent four hours there one evening, wandering through the grounds, marvelling at the lights and decorations (pic) sipping gløgg at an outside bar and then rounding off the evening at a lively restaurant called Grøften.

The occasion reminded me of a Christmas Eve many years ago when, once again, I found myself in Copenhagen. While their parents prepared roast duck, roast pork and rice pudding with a whole almond - a traditional Danish Christmas dinner - I was detailed to take my two little nephews for a walk around the city.

We popped into the Marble Church to hear the carol singing and stopped to speak to the bearskin-hatted soldiers on sentry duty outside Amalienborg Palace. And all the time the snow was falling softly and steadily from the dark Scandinavian sky. Hygge indeed.

Info: Copenhagen tourism: www.visitcopenhagen.com. Also www.visitdenmark.co.uk Copenhagen Style Guide by Anna Peuckert and Søren Jepsen. Books on hygge include The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well; The book of Hygge: The Danish art of living well; and Hygge: the Danish Art of Happiness. For new Nordic cuisine: Geranium, Kadeau, Manfreds, Restaurant AOC, Bror, Relae. Noma, voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ four times, closes shortly but is expected to reopen elsewhere in the city in 2017.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Malaga

How many thousands of people pass through Malaga Airport every year and never, ever give the city a second glance as they head towards Torremolinos and Fuengirola and then further west to Marbella and Estepona?

Yet the siren call of Picasso’s birthplace has been getting louder and louder over the last few years as Spain’s sixth largest city adds a wealth of cultural attractions and a vibrant foodie scene to its multi-layered history and sun-drenched location.

Founded by the Phoenicians in about 800BC, Malaga - for a start - is home to more than 20 museums and galleries, including the Picasso, Carmen Thyssen, Automobile, Russian Art, Contemporary Art, Flamenco Art, Glass and Crystal, and Wine museums.

It has a branch of the Pompidou Centre, Paris, a cathedral (built between 1528-1783 and noted for its two organs and missing tower) a Roman amphitheatre, two Moorish fortresses (the Alcazaba and Castillo de Gibralfar), a wonderful food market called Atarazanas, several beaches and a busy working port.

It was near the port in an area called Soho where we based ourselves, heading out each morning past the street art - for which Soho is well known - to explore the city. Much of its historic centre is pedestrianised and many streets, by the looks of things, are washed down every morning, despite the arid looking landscape to the north.

Malaga’s grandest thoroughfare is the few hundred metres of the marble-paved Calle Marqués de Larios, protected from the sun by huge shades when we were there in early September. The street runs south/north and at its northern end meets the Plaza de la Constitución.

Head in any direction from here, though the streets and small squares, and you’ll delight in the experience. There are a huge number of small, independent shops, cafés, bars and restaurants which makes a refreshing change from the uniform, chain-stored high streets of many places in the UK.

Look out for the ironwork balconies on buildings, the attractive street lanterns, the almond sellers, the fountains and the odd sculpture, and just listen to the noise of people ceaselessly chattering, amplified on weekend evenings when so many families are out walking the streets.

For many visitors the most visible evidence of change in Malaga is probably down at the port where the Palmeral de las Sorpresas is now the most beautiful of promenades. On one side is the sea, on the other are palm trees, gardens, water features and children’s play areas and above is an elegant, elongated canopy/pergola, offering shelter from the sun. You could stroll along here every day of your life and never tire of it.

At the eastern end of this promenade is the large, multi-coloured cube of the Pompidou Centre and then stretching south from that is the wide Muelle Uno - Quay One - where a grimy old harbour area is now home to a range of bars, shops and restaurants. Across the way were moored a few smallish yachts and a couple of considerably bigger fish as well. The fortress of Gibralfar sits on the hill directly to the north.

From Muelle Uno you can cut through to the Malaga beaches, nothing to go wild about but still enjoyed by thousands. Take a stroll (going east) on the path which follows the beaches and the road, past the impressive Gran Hotel Miramar (opening late 2016), and watch the parakeets fly in and out of the trees. Even at eight or nine on a summer’s evening, the water can be warm enough for a quick swim.

More to follow on the Picasso Museum, the Alcazaba and Castillo de Gibralfar, the Atarazanas Market, where to stay and where to eat and drink.

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