Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Canopy Under the Stars

It's not everday that one turns 21. It happens once, to be exact. However, the frequency of this occasion has zero relationship with the precious memories that are created, which are to be closely guarded forever. 

I am lucky to say that last weekend, to celebrate my 21st birthday I was whisked away on a surprise trip around the beautiful South of France. Our end destination was a secret, unknown to me as we drove along along dramatic mountain roads winding their way through the forested Cévennes, traversing small medieval hamlets full of dairies, vineyards and wine producers. Charming stone walls, old neglected farmhouses simply begging to be snapped up and transformed into 'chambre d'hôtes', fields of twisted vines slowly ripening for the wine harvest and organic vegetable farms pepper this part of the French countryside. Going deeper into the rural and sunblushed Provençal Gard, we reached the place where we were staying the night: Natura Lodges, Barjac. 

Camping has undergone a chic revolution; gone are the days of oh-so heavy canvas tents lugged around in oversized rucksacks, getting wet as soon as the heavens open and waking up freezing in the middle of the night then getting lost in the great outdoors on your way to an icy, spider-infested outdoor toilet. Instead, we are ushering in the era of glamping: the perfect way to appreciate nature, tucked inside a cosy new-age tent, benefitting from a digital detox and the tranquil countryside around you. 

Our glamping experience at Natura Lodges was exactly this, but with a little central-Asian flavour. Yurt Urga' was where we spent the night, a Mongolian tent tucked away in the French countryside for total time-out and rejuvenation. The smiling peaceful owners explained to us that they had imported an authentic Mongolian Yurt and constructed it here in France.  Inside the yurt, it was a little haven of calm, with swirling nomadic patterns covering the latticed interior built in a restful, circular shape and brightly coloured, gypsy-caravan doors marked the entrance. Surprisingly, the yurts are so well insulated and a little triangular log burner kept us toasty warm, as did the abundance of traditional blankets stored a beautiful authentic Mongolian cabinet. Night time brought with it perfect quiet and star-gazing from our terrace, glass of Pinot noir in hand, of course. 

The whole place is dedicated to well-being and relaxation; there's a swimming pool, wooden cabanas, a Finnish-style sauna (ultra-relaxing!) and a bright airy day room with a terrace for eating breakfast and reading, decorated with Eastern textiles and bohemian details. Breakfast was so worth waking up for! Fresh, organic coffee, juice, French bread and an array of spreads, such as locally produced honey and sweet crème de marron awaited us. Upon exploring the land a little bit, we discovered an old plane from the 60s where guests can actually sleep! Seriously retro. Oh and in addition, the whole place is completely Eco-friendly, a proud holder of 'La Clef Verte.' 

Original, luxurious and decidedly cool, it was an unforgettable experience full of great conversation, exploration, special moments and undoubtedly the best welcome to official adult-hood! 

I hope you all had a Happy Easter, full of chocolate and Spring promise! 


Friday, 12 February 2016

Musings on Barcelona

By deciding to emotionally splurge about Barcelona, I've unwittingly introduced a cyclical structure to Of Dresses and Dolls. It was in the sunny Catalan capital, whilst waiting for a night bus at 3am, that I first put metaphorical pen to paper (back then it was via notes on a 1st Generation iPod touch) and voilà, this blog was born. Naïve as I was back then, I was utterly unaware of just how much bearing this city would come to have on my life. Although I'm still very much a tourist each time I go back, much like Montjuic's magic fountains, the city remains an unrestrained, bubbling source of happiness ready to inspire me anew with the dynamism and life force that sweeps down its streets. No matter how many times I return, I click imperceptibly into a mode of optimism driven by a feeling of exploration, touched by Barcelona's signature kick back and relax attitude. 

When trying to pinpoint the reasons for Barcelona's inescapable charm, I'm left floundering in a state of indecision. Is it the city's geographical variation? (There's nothing like going from the beach to a mountain in twenty minutes) Its architectural wonders? Its rich history as the capital of Catalunya, (the politics of which are still very much alive today) or the wonderful blend of cosmopolitan, open-minded people who flock to this artistic hub ready to set up a cool concept store, an organic food shop or the buskers who take to the streets, saxophone in hand, adding music to the colours of this already buzzing atmosphere. Of course one factor can never be isolated in certainty, the answer to my self-demanded question is that it's a fusion of all of the aforementioned. 

Each time I visit Barcelona, I notice something new. A little observation - some original street art in Gracia, a newly opened Pinxhos Bar or looking up to a plant-draped balcony in Barceloneta. These small details interiorise into a bubble of happiness and blooming hope. This feeling is most definitely heightened by the eye-searingly blue sky overhead. 

Perhaps that is why Barcelona is so addictive; certainly my levels of serotonin go through the roof when I'm there. However the anchor-like sense of attachment I feel for the place is due to the the future potential I feel the city holds. Whilst the American Dream holds no specific appeal for me, the Barcelona Dream is most alluring. 

I think it's Barcelona (yes, I'm going to personify the city) who opened by eyes to the wonder of  architecture. This newly discovered chapter of appreciation was undoubtedly formed by Gaudí's irrefutable masterpieces.  Upon arriving in the city it's impossible not to notice the scale and number of magnificent buildings. Home to the Kings of Modernism, there's always thrill of stumbling upon one of Gaudi's works around the next corner; a wrought iron basilisk popping up unexpectedly in the residential area of Pedralbes or the hexagonal paving stones as you stroll up towards the majestic, iridescent dragon slumbering a-rooftop on Casa Battló. Curving smooth lines wrap around the entire building of La Pedrera and the mosaic & marble aqueduct-esque création at Parc Guëll provides an unbeatable vantage point over the city. Fingers crossed the melted wax-like structure of the Sagrada Familia with it's hauntingly beautiful skeletal interior, will be finished before we hit the next millennium... 

The ecological consciousness in Barcelona is evident from the numerous organic food markets displaying an abundance of vibrant fruits and natural stores selling hemp-woven furniture and rope-soled espadrilles. There's a mutual exchange of love between the city, the citizens and the surrounding nature. Consuming, as we do in all cities, but with a care and delicateness that is poignant to see. Cool bars with foliage-covered courtyards, tapas bars decorated with hipster, bonsai-cacti and understated neutral street art are just a few of the harmonious havens created by this hippie, green outlook. It's a well reputed fact that the gastronomic scene in Barca is second to none and absolutely one of the city's selling points. Every single type of cuisine imaginable is on offer and served in a great variety of restaurants. There's gastro-chic bars, dark wooded bodegas, minimalist modern restaurants, simple yet delicious Sicilian take out pizza/pasta bars, vegan eateries, heavenly brunch spots and piled-high food markets. In fact, it's almost too easy to arrive in Barcelona and make eating a productive past time (guilty as charged). But afterwards, pick up the city's energy; cycle, roller-blade or long-board along the beach front to burn off the calamari, rosé sangria and cobwebs of the night before. 

Tranquiló - Namaste in Gracia 

The ornate peacock window of Casa Figueras; Barcelona's oldest coffee house 

Gracia's market may have been closed, but the walls were alive...

Pistachio-cream wedding-cake houses in the Plaça de Sol; be prepared to fight for a table on the terrace! 

Tapas innovation along the Poble Sec's bar clad streets 

The only place to go for those €1 fresh fruit juices 

Stumbling upon golden palaces in the heart of leafy, shaded gardens 

Concept art store in the winding streets of the Gothic quarter 

A literal greenhouse, nestled in the calm of the Born

Alsur Café, a delightful fusion of brunch, jamon iberico and interior design

A purple haze of graffiti; snapped mid-cycle down the Diagonal

Hip tapas in the Plaça Commercial;  seared tuna steak and incredible Gin & Basil cocktails

Double-dosing on love 

Unexpected geometry just off the Ramblas 

Cute little cacti.....until you accidentally spike yourself! 

The architectural magnificence of the Cultural Centre, El Born 

Scandinavia-style lighting amongst Gothic, vaulted arches

Eclectic and colourful, this jewel jumps out on an unassuming side street

One of the network of hidden roof terraces; from a beautiful and unforgettable weekend

I'm still infatuated with palm trees of any sort....

A breath of fresh paint in the Born 

All this incredible history, the stone buildings, variety of quarters, street festivals, live music, original art and vibrant culture imbue Barcelona with bohemia, innovation and beauty.  This heartfelt affinity makes it definitely a place in which I can permanently see myself in no more than a few years.

Happy Exploring to all the wandering souls out there!