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Ron Sexsmith is a Canadian singer songwriter who until quite recently was greatly respected among his fellow musicians but was largely untroubled by commercial success. Although he has a legion of dedicated fans, Sexsmith managed to maintain a low media profile until the release of 'Long Player Late Bloomer', his eleventh studio album, in 2011; engaging the services of the near legendary Bob Rock (better known for his work with acts such as Metallica - controversially for many Metallica fans - and Motley Crue) which gave his usually low key introspective music a more commercial edge and in turn getting Sexsmith a foot in the door of mainstream radio. Indeed, a frequent presence on the Radio 2 playlist, plus an excellent BBC4 documentary, introduced Sexsmith to a new audience, while a collaboration with the then ubiquitous (mind you so is dog mess in some streets near me) Michael Buble didn't do any harm either. Until the release of 'Long Player, Late Bloomer' Ron Sexsmith had a reputation for rather introspective and slightly melancholy; the only thing that's changed is that Sexsmith seems to be presenting these sentiments against a more polished and upbeat musical background, and perhaps even a sharper sense of word play, not least with the album's autobiographical title track. There's a vague feeling that Sexsmith is happier these days but he is still rather hard on himself even if that comes across as self deprecating rather than self pitying. Unfortunately what Ron Sexsmith has gained in broader appeal by making his music more melodic, he has lost in depth of feeling with the title track being the closest thing to his usual style. In this song Ron tackles what he has described in interviews as an early midlife crisis; according to the lyrics he deals with this by "turning the record over" and says that "my song is my saviour". Sexsmith's personal struggles have been well documented and as a long time fan I can't help feeling happy that Ron has found a way through them, but a little part of me can't help selfishly feeling that he was more interesting when he wasn't so happy. 'Long Player Late Bloomer' does sound good, very good in fact, but for me there's a feeling that the songs have been given a generic radio friendly sound that, while adding a certain commercial polish, take the shine off Ron's well crafted songs. It's just not what I really want Ron Sexsmith to sound like. One of the main reasons that I feel this album has been stolen from Ron is the judicious use of auto tune; of course, you'll only recognise this if you are familiar with Ron's previous releases but comparing the before and after sound shows that the tweaking of his voice here has resulted in the loss of that sense of vulnerability he usually imbues his material with. This is not a bad album but it is one for new fans rather than the long timers. Listeners of Radio 2 will recognise a few tracks that enjoyed a lot of airplay including "Love Shines" a languid song that evokes a hybrid of Paul McCartney and Jeff Lynne through its use of mellifluous harmonies, and "Believe It When I See It" which, happily, is one track that allows us to hear Ron singing with his usual smoky voice. The album has a slight country tinge in places with some wonderfully uplifting harmonica on the infectiously upbeat "The Reason Why", a track which reminds me of Ryan Adams on an 'up' day, and some gorgeously "twangy" pedal steel on "Heavenly", a song that would otherwise be horribly twee.Overall, though, this is a perfectly pleasant collection of thirteen songs that (mostly) after a couple of listens work their way into your brain and won't let you. OK, some of the songs are a bit saccharine (though that is, in part, down to the production) but there's a lot to enjoy here from some undeniably Ben Folds-esque piano to some moments of pure sunshine such as the quirkily boppy "Middle of Love" and "Eye Candy", a cute snipe at drunken socialites, which has a rousing foot stomping bar room hook. The latter is perhaps the song that most benefits from the Bob Rock treatment. Ron Sexsmith's ability to pen a decent song still shines through; not for no reason has he been acclaimed by the likes of Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, both of whom know their way round a good song. It's a shame that the change of production style has lost something of what made Ron Sexsmith such a distinctive talent. It's good, but it's not Ron. "Long Player Later Bloomer" can be downloaded from i-Tunes for £7.99; the audio CD is available through Amazon for £11.83
'Mitsouko' was launched by Guerlain way back in 1919 but was tweaked and re-launched a couple of years back; somehow that passed me by but a fantastic sales assistant in a local perfume store introduced me to the eau de toilette that quickly established itself as my current favourite. I had some money burning a hole in my purse and asked the assistant to recommend something spicy but a little bit different. Among the handful of ideas she came up with was 'Mitsouko': it's generally classified as a 'fruity chypre', a description that misses the mark in my opinion as, to my nose, this is a warm, slightly powdery and vaguely old-fashioned scent that, though it does have the woody greenness that characterises a the chypre fragrances, is more floral than fruity despite a distinctive hit of peach. It is thought that the name Mitsouko was inspired by a story by French author Claude Farrere. The story is set in Japan and the action takes place during the Russo-Japanese wars; the story describes an illicit romance between a British army officer and Mitsouko, the wife of Japanese Emperor Togo. As both men go to battle, Mitsouko waits quietly at home, not knowing which will be the one to return safely to become her companion. The fragrance seems to me to reflect the story quite nicely; though this is a beautiful scent it is at the same time understated and modest. It has an air of formality I associate with the Japanese but a mysterious side that comes from the overall blend of notes which creates something quite unlike any other perfume I can think of. The top notes are cool and give no clue to the direction the fragrance will move in; the jasmine is the one that really grabs me but there's also a little citrus and bergamot. After a minute or so the sharper elements fade gently and the floral aspects start to develop, most notably an old-fashioned rose note. The middle notes see Mitsouko find its place as a classic floral scent with lilac joining the rose and jasmine. However there's a fresh but not too tangy peach note in there too which I think stops this fragrance being too 'old ladyish'. The middle notes don't last long enough in my opinion but I love the finish so much that I don't really mind. The base notes are what I love most about this perfume; in fact, I initially decided against this fragrance but after an hour's shopping, I returned to the store to buy it, having allowed the later stages of the scent's development to persuade me. Though many reviewers rave about the oakmoss it's the amber note that appeals most to me. It's warm and sensual and exotic. There's a vague hint of cinnamon and a hit of vetiver too. Personally I find this a long lasting scent on my own skin though I'm aware others have complained about its staying power. As this is such an unusual scent I would suggest trying it at the beginning of the day and giving it a chance to really develop before making a decision. The scent stays close to my skin; it's not one friends have commented on until quite close to me. The bottle is quite simple and understated yet conveys a 1920s elegance with classical scrolls at the shoulders and on the lid. I bought the 30ml eau de toilette and it is a fragrance I do not regret buying as an EDT rather and than the eau de parfum. I have been unable to find it online at many retailers but it is currently available from perfumesclub.co.uk priced at £33.08. I bought mine from the Perfume Shop and it may be worth trying their high street stores.
Contrary to what some would believe, not all Brits are obsessed with kettles; however, as this is my second kettle review in a short time, I feel it behoves me to explain why I am in possession of yet another kettle. The Russell Hobbs 18770 Futura was bought as a replacement for a kettle from another manufacturer; With a permanent move to Slovenia planned for the first half of 2014 I was fairly vexed at the breakdown of a kettle that was reasonably new when I had planned on that kettle being certain to last until the move, at which time it could be passed on to someone else. It says something about my reliance on kettles that I was able to manage perfectly well without an electric kettle until I had banked a few quid in Amazon vouchers to cover the cost of a new one. Of course, a pan of water requires more attention than an electric kettle so I was keen to get something ordered and installed in my kitchen. I am perfectly well aware that stove top kettles can be used but since I didn't have one when the old kettle died on me, the only option available to me until I could purchase an alternative was to use a saucepan. I am of the opinions that for some products there is simply too much choice. My only requirement was that the kettle should have a decent capacity, plus I didn't want to spend a small fortune on it. The Russell Hobbs 18770 Futura has a capacity of 1.7 litres and the Amazon price at the time of purchase was £17.97. According to Amazon it is the best selling kettle in its catalogue; I didn't read any reviews but I hoped that if lots of other people had bought the kettle, they had read the reviews on my behalf and were happy to part with their money for this model. According to Russell Hobbs the main features of this model are: Brushed Stainless Steel Removable washable filter Illuminated on/off switch Boil dry protection Push button plastic lid Powerful 3 kW rapid boil Concealed element for fast boiling 360º cordless base Having recently refurbished the kitchen and wanting to present it nicely when the flat goes on the market, I opted for a stainless steel model which I think looks a bit smarter than white plastic (which I have found with other models I have owned does tend to discolour more quickly than it ought to); however, I have found that, after only moderate use, the metal looks a little "mottled" with water marks that are quite difficult to shift. The design is very sleek and simple but the slightly odd looking spout rang alarm bells; in practice my concerns were realised because this kettle does not pour well and as a consequence I am frequently mopping up water from the work top. Only be very careful positioning of the beak like spout can you minimise the spillage; it takes a little experimentation. The weight is reasonable, not too heavy, even when full, but not so light that it feels cheap and flimsy. In fact overall this feels like a sturdy appliance and not at all clunky (which is the case with case with the plastic Russell Hobbs kettle I own in Slovenia). This kettle boils quickly which is just as well because it is very noisy; I can hear it boiling away in the kitchen at the back of the flat when I am in the main bedroom at the front. It is without a doubt the loudest electric kettle I have ever heard. One average sized mug of water takes just one minute to boil in a completely cold kettle, and two mugs take only a fraction longer. The 360º cordless base is a nice feature to have in a kettle that is used in a small kitchen because it means you don't have to depend on the kettle and base being positioned in a precise way. The base is small and the kettle is tall rather than wide, another advantage for those with minimal space; on the other hand the kettle is not so tall that it is awkward to get under the tap. Occasionally I might need to fill the kettle when the washing up bowl is full, and I am able to angle the kettle and get it under the tap without dunking the base in the washing up bowl. This model does not have a gauge to indicate the water level and it did take me a few attempts to really judge just by weight; I find that simply peering inside the kettle does not give a fair impression of the contents. The limescale filter has not really been given much work in this house as it takes a long time for scale to build up on any water consuming appliance here. However, out of curiosity I have removed the filter and it is easy to remove and replace. Although this kettle is less than perfect in several areas I am happy enough with the speed at which it boils and its sturdiness. I am optimistic that it's the last one I'll be buying in the UK. I wouldn't choose this model again but the price paid was fair. Note: a number of sellers on Amazon carry this model so prices vary. We bought directly from Amazon to get free delivery.
Slovenians don't really 'do' kettles; they use a stove top kettle or they use a very small pan with a pouring lip when making (mostly) coffee. When we bought our first place in Slovenia we bought a stove top kettle which boiled quickly and suited us fine. We took it to the new house and when we waited patiently in the cold house for our heating oil to be delivered, we filled the kettle with water and set it on the hob. When after a few minutes nothing happened I started to swear a lot, alerting our estate agent Marko who was patiently waiting with us to introduce us the oil man. After a few minutes of three grown adults being utterly stumped, Marko suddenly realised that this house had an induction hob and our kettle was not compatible with it. Now if you go out shopping for appliances in Slovenia you will find countless niche products like popcorn poppers, hot dog steamers and electric waffle machines all of which have several brand options, but probably only one or two kettles. In fact we bought ours from the Tus supermarket which had only one kettle available. The price seemed OK and I couldn't be bothered to check the specifications so we stuck it in the trolley. Only one feature stood out and that was the anti-scale filter which is essential in Slovenia where everyone has very hard water. I don't usually focus too much on brands but knowing the Russell Hobbs name reassured me a little as I didn't have time to ask Slovene friends for a recommendation. This kettle is white and very simply designed. Actually it feels very plasticky and clunky; you certainly couldn't call it sleek or stylish. It has a 360 Degree cordless base which is useful to me because it means I can grab the kettle easily from either side of the work space: when our hot water failed earlier this year we had to boil the kettle numerous times to fill the washing up bowl but wanted to use the kettle while cooking too and we really appreciated the freedom the cordless base facilitates. When the kettle is switched on to boil a neon blue light comes on. There's a water level indicator window which could do with being more central on the side of the kettle: as it is it's a bit too close to the handle. However this is on both sides so you don't have to turn the kettle round to see it. The kettle has a 1.7 litre capacity which more than meets our usual needs. This kettle boils rapidly and makes only minimal noise: this is in stark contrast to a similar Russell Hobbs model we bought in the UK recently. I find that this particular model keeps recently boiled water hot for some time after boiling. The exterior of the kettle doesn't get too hot which is a positive for me as I will always stick my hand on the side of the kettle to see if the water is still hot: this is not always advisable with some kettles. This kettle performs pretty much as I expected: actually it boils more quickly than I had anticipated so in one way it has outperformed my expectations. I have not been as impressed with the limescale filter: this removable filter which slips into the pouring spout should filter out bits of what Slovenes call 'water stone'. You can slide out the filter to clean it but even though I do this frequently, I still find tiny bits of scale in the bottom of my coffee when I am nearly at the bottom. I have taken to pouring the boiled water through a tea strainer to see if I can catch any more. The other niggle with this kettle is that the release button to open the lid is horribly clunky and I don't think it'll last very long. Sometimes it sticks so I tend to stick the spout under the tap and fill it that way instead. In the UK you can expect to pay upwards of £20 for this kettle. Argos currently sells it for £24.99 while Amazon charges £19.97. For the price I paid in Slovenia I was happy enough with it. To get a better kettle there I'd have had to pay a lot more and really made some effort to find something. In the UK I'd say that you can get something a bit better for the same price.
There can be few people who don't know who Miffy is; even if they don't know him by name, this little white rabbit with the innocent expression is an instantly recognisable character to people all round the world. Miffy is the central character in a series of story books for children; she was created by illustrator Dick Bruna and has now appeared in 30 story books (though each has been translated into several different languages). The first book appeared in 1955; being born in the 1970s I could have read Miffy books as a child but they somehow passed me by. Still, I knew enough about Miffy to want to visit the Dick Bruna Huis when I was in Utrecht, the Dutch town where Dick Bruna still has his studio. The name 'Dick Bruna Huis' is a little misleading because Dick Bruna has never lived in this building. The museum is an off shoot of the bigger Centraal Museum which is just round the corner; although the Dick Bruna Huis is staffed, you have to buy your ticket at the desk in the Centraal Museum and the ticket covers both attractions. The museums are a five to ten minute walk from the heart of Utrecht. What I really liked about this exhibition is they way they have balanced the content between fun interactive stuff for kids, and something more educational for adults. In the first room there are low level tables and chairs and young visitors can look at some of the Miffy books themselves, or with an adult. The walls in this room are covered from floor to ceiling with a collage of all the books to date in the various languages in which they have appeared. There are also headphones so kids can listen to their favourite Miffy stories read out loud. The next room contains an exhibition about Dick Bruna and how he started out in publishing working for this father, before going it alone as an illustrator. Before creating Miffy Bruna had a successful career designing covers for paperback novels and many of them are on display here. There's also a short documentary in which Bruna explains the techniques used to give his illustrations that simple, distinctive style. Bruna explains that he was inspired by Gerritt Rietveld, the Utrecht designer and architect; in the film he goes to the house that Rietveld designed and lived in until his death in 1964, and it's clear to see how he has been influenced (the house is also included on the Centraal Museum ticket and visitors can borrow a bike from the museum to cycle to the house). I found the documentary quite absorbing but it's subtitled and with the noise of the kids in the previous room I had to concentrate quite hard to follow the film. Younger kids probably wouldn't be interested in this part of the exhibition but as long as you could see them I suppose they would be fine staying in the first room until the adults were ready to move on. The rest of the exhibition is rather eclectic. There was a temporary exhibition, 'Miffy in the Attic' that I felt had a kind of Alice's Adventures in Wonderful feel to it with tunnels to crawl through and cosy hidden rooms. There's also a gallery upstairs that is a more detailed explanation of the techniques that Bruna describes in the documentary but having learned that we could visit the Centraal Museum in the ticket price we decided that it would merely repeat what we had already watched. Having walked round the exhibition and ended up in the gift shop I couldn't help thinking that the whole thing is just an elaborate ruse to get you to buy some Miffy memorabilia. All the books are available in all of the languages Miffy has appeared in. There are babygros, t-shirts, pyjamas and socks; mugs and plates; bags and purses. You name it Miffy's naive little face is emblazoned on it and you can buy it here. For entrance into three museums I think the admission charge is fair but if you were only to visit the Dick Bruna Huis it's rather excessive; however, given that under 12s (the target audience for Miffy if I'm honest) go free maybe it's not that unreasonable. The Dick Bruna Huis is open Tuesday - Sunday 11.00 am - 5.00 pm; it is closed on Mondays. Admission is Euro11 for 18 - 64 year olds; Euro9 for people over 65; Euro5 for 13 - 17 year olds; free for 12 years and younger. We had a bought a pass that gave us free admission or a free set meal at any four of the attractions or restaurants listed. The Dick Bruna Huis is fully wheelchair accessible.
To many the term 'guest house' to describe Ljubljana's Guest House Martin' will be something of a misnomer: I've stayed in some dive-y hostels where I felt more like a 'guest'. Still with hotel rooms shooting up in price and hostel rooms non existent due to the final stages of the European Basketball Championships in Ljubljana recently we bagged one of the few remaining cheap rooms in the city. I wouldn't recommend Guest House Martin to Ljubljana first-timers. It's not that it is far from the attractions but it is quite tricky to find and you can pay just a few Euro more to be more central in a nicer pad. The owners live in part of the house and rent a few rooms. We arrived last so ended up with the room with the bunk beds. After a few beers and 14 hours travel, we didn't really care but if you book this place and really don't want bunks, you should stress this when booking and ask to have one of the other rooms reserved. First impressions aren't great although the house is at the end of a lovely quiet lane. The garden is a bit scruffy and the car port roof is badly in need of a major clean. It does look a bit tired and run down. The paving stones leading to the guests' entrance were uneven and the sensor lights had a mind of their own so tackling the path in the dark was a bit awkward. The owners have a dog which I'm sure is friendly but it gave us quite a fright when it leapt out onto the first floor balcony to bark when we arrived. The room was clean though it was in dire need of some refreshment in the decoration. The walls were rough and badly painted and the cheap furniture knocked about. The carpet didn't meet the walls and was shabby. In the shared bathroom the walls had clearly been painted over and over with whatever paint lay around at the time. The shower ran off the taps over the bath tub; the bath tub was very deep and this made climbing in and out very tricky because I have short legs and also because there was nothing to hold onto. The water took a good couple of minutes to reach a temperature warm enough for a pleasant shower. Small towels were provided in our room in spite of the website I booked with saying they weren't. While this 'guest house' could do with an upgrade in terms of furnishings and decor, it did have some advantages. At Euro36 for two people we couldn't really get too vexed about the short comings: a tourist tax of Euro1.01 was paid in cash to the owner at the time of departure. They also have free wi-fi in the rooms and this ran quickly and without interruption. All of the rooms have a little balcony with views over the back and side gardens which are much nicer than the one at the front. The landing has a sofa on it but it's not really a place you'd go to sit and relax in; for one night we didn't mind but there is no real communal area so those looking to meet other travelers may find this place a bit disappointing. I found the owner a little abrupt and less than friendly but ultimately we didn't have to engage with her much so this wasn't a major issue. Breakfast is not provided but there are bakeries and cafes close by in the Trnovo district. If you want a meal but don't want to go far there's a restaurant just at the entrance to the lane. A shared kitchen is listed on booking sites but this was not pointed out to us so I can't comment on the facilities. Guest House Martin is very basic. That said we had a good night's sleep and there was hot water. As we know the city well we were happy with the location; in fact it suited us better than being in the centre as the bars and restaurants here are cheaper and you mix more with the locals. The heart of touristy Ljubljana is ten minutes walk away. I wouldn't stay at Guest House Martin again but I would recommend it to someone on a really tight budget who doesn't want to stay in a conventional hostel. We booked through booking.com. The guest house does not have its own website.
It is well know among my friends and family that I have no concept of space or distance; it is one of the reasons I have never learned to drive. Although I am not unfamiliar with the idea that the further you go from a city centre the cheaper the hotels tend to become, I cheerfully booked us in for three nights at Utrecht's Bastion Hotel which is somewhere between two and three miles from the centre of the city. To be fair the information on the hotel's website was a little misleading because it suggested that it's closer to the centre than it really is but the price was so much cheaper than the hotels in the centre that we were able to stay an extra night and even taking into account tram fares for two this seemed like a good deal. Walking round Utrecht you can see why the hotels are so expensive. The ones in the centre tend to occupy magnificent old buildings and have excellent views and presumably the rules relating to the use of such buildings probably restrict changes to the interior to that might otherwise create more rooms. The hotels in the centre of Utrecht appear to be rather grand and elegant, or else small and boutique-y; if you have a limited budget you need to stay away from the centre. Station Location There are very few cars in the centre of Utrecht; most people get around by bike and the commercial area is easy to get around on foot. The streets are narrow and not really suited to cars so if you are driving to Utrecht you'd probably be better off in a location on the outskirts of town. One of the city's much used Park & Ride car-parks is just across the road, right beside a tram and bus stop and public transport runs into the early hours. The hotel, of course, has its own secure parking but if you do need to go into the city centre, it's no more than ten minutes to Utrecht's vast 'Centraal Station'. There is nothing else in the area, however, and the hotel is essentially on the edge of a large industrial zone. If you find yourself wanting a beer, a bottle of water or a bite to eat you either have to pay hotel prices, or jump on a tram, or get in your car. Fence/Offence We arrived at Utrecht's Centraal Station just before 10.00 pm and tried to follow the seemingly excellent directions provided on the hotel's website. Unfortunately, due to major work at the station site, trams are not leaving from the station and the buses mentioned in my notes were leaving from a different place. Had this been a temporary change I would have minded less but a local teenager told us that the diversion had been in place all summer, and I don't think it unreasonable to expect the website information to be amended while the diversion was in place. The tram stop is directly opposite the hotel and there's a crossing to help you negotiate four lanes of traffic, two tramlines and two cycle paths. However, when you get to the hotel side, the path is badly lit, overgrown and has a number of uneven paving stones. If this was not sufficiently unwelcoming, pedestrians have to press a buzzer to get the night receptionist to let you in. There are two buttons on the intercom and we pressed both as it was too dark to see which was the correct one. There's also no way of knowing, once you have pressed the buttons, whether the equipment is working and I must apologise to the staff if, as a result, I pressed the button more times than necessary. What I found odd about this arrangement is that there didn't appear to be a camera to allow the staff could see who they were admitting, so they couldn't really be sure it was guests they were buzzing in. The whole set up here seemed a bit over the top and intimidating, making us wonder what kind of neighbourhood we were staying in. Hostile Hosts Based on the quality of the accommodation alone, I'd be giving Bastion Hotel Utrecht a good four stars. I had no complaint about our twin room which was clean, comfortable and equipped with everything we needed for our stay. The room was not huge but neither did you have to squeeze round the furniture or dodge each other to get round the room, and there was enough room to stash bags out of the way. The water in our en suite shower room was always hot and easy to adjust. Although the shower did not have a tray the bathroom did not flood and remained inside the low lip intended to trap it. The mirror didn't steam up and there were strategically placed hooks to hang clothes and towels. It's such a shame, then, that the poor service takes the shine of this excellent accommodation. Check in was efficient even if the receptionist wasn't very friendly but when we got to the room I realised we hadn't been given a password to access the hotel's Wi-Fi which is free across throughout the building; I checked the wallet that our key wipe card had been presented in, and the hotel information folder without success. When I picked up the 'phone to ask the receptionist for the code the line was dead, thought the 'phone was plugged in, so it was on with the shoes and off to reception, The receptionist told me the password in a tone that suggested I should have known it without being told and repeated the information I relayed to her about the telephone not working in a way that suggested she didn't really believe me. After a dozen failed attempts to connect to the network I took my netbook down to reception and asked the receptionist to write down the password in case there was something I was missing. From the sigh this request provoked, I had asked a great deal of the receptionist. I tried again unsuccessfully and asked whether there were any issues with certain parts of the building being more problematic for getting a signal; I was told so bluntly that there were no such issues that I wished I hadn't asked. A second attempt to log on was successful. As I left reception I thanked the receptionist for jotting down the password but couldn't help mentioning that I found her attitude rude. "Well what could I do? she asked. I explained that even if there was nothing she could do she should sympathise and apologise about the problems I was having and sigh and pull faces after I had left reception. The next morning another receptionist was on duty. He was talking to a colleague when we came downstairs; neither of them acknowledged us and it took an excuse me as we waited at the desk to get the receptionists attention. We asked for a map of the city and one was thrust into my partner's hand before the receptionist returned to his conversation. It would have been nice if the receptionist had taken the time to show us where the hotel was on the map in relation to the city centre. Irritating Issues There are a couple of additional details that didn't affect our enjoyment of our stay or cause us a lot of bother but which I feel are worth mentioning because they show that there's a lack of thought prevalent here. The room safe was hidden away in a storage area which had shelves on one side and a hanging area opposite. The instructions for setting the code and locking the safe were on the front of the safe in tiny print. Even with all the lights in the room switched on, we still had to use the light on a mobile phone to see the instructions. Without such a light it would have been impossible to read them. On the day we were to check out I jumped in the shower only to find when I was finished that there were no fresh towels in the place where previously they had been neatly folded and stored. It turned out they were in the bedroom, just above the safe. This is a minor niggle but an annoying one because it meant I had to trail my wet feet all over the bathroom and into the bedroom in search of towels or to ask my partner to throw on some clothes and go and find some towels as we initially thought he might have to do. Final Score The most important requirements of a comfortable and clean room for a good night's sleep were fulfilled and I can't complain at all about those aspects. While the décor was very bland (and a picture hanging on the wall was cheap looking and uninspiring -it showed graffiti on brickwork) the room was spotless and well maintained and the furniture and fixtures appeared to be of decent quality. We didn't take breakfast at the hotel but you can pay separately for this at a cost of Euro14.50 per person per day. As I am happy with a coffee and a pastry (which you can buy for Euro2.00 from many cafes and bakers' shops before 10.00 am) I was happy to wait until I got into town and make do with a coffee in our room first thing. The hotel restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner, and doubles as the hotel bar. There's a small television room with a pool table just beside the hotel entrance. We paid £44.89 for Friday and Saturday nights and £52.90 for Sunday night staying in August/September 2013. We booked through hotels.com and were able to use a voucher to get a ten per cent discount. A local tourist tax of approximately Euro14 for the two of us for the three night's stay were paid in cash on arrival. Note: the telephone was not fixed during our stay.
The former Yugoslavia, and the now independent constituent countries thereof, are not synonymous with 'world cinema' but there are a handful of stand out movies, and several of those are the work of Emir Kustarica. Best described as a 'renaissance man' Bosnian Kusturica is an actor, musician and film maker who has received the top honours his own country can bestow, as well as international recognition and acclaim. His film works are diverse and range from straightforward dramas and black comedies to documentaries such as a biography of maverick Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona and music videos for the likes of Manu Chao. 'Do You Remember Dolly Bell?' was Kustarica's first feature length film, made in 1981, a couple of years after he graduated from film school in Prague. It's best summed up as a simple tale told well. Set in 1960s Sarajevo, it's a coming of age story which has stood the test of time in spite of key elements in the plot reflecting the changes going on in Yugoslavia at the time. Like other teenagers, Dino, takes advantage of the relaxation of Communist rule in Yugoslavia; as it becomes easier to get access to western music and films, young people struggle to handle their new found freedoms. At home, however, it's a different story: his father, a loyal party member, comes home drunk and drags his kids out of bed to take part in his version of party assemblies. Dino finds solace in the cinema where he's entranced by western movies depicting crime as exciting and glamorous. One evening in a club, Dino is mesmerised by images of Dolly Bell, a character from a 1950s Italian movie, projected onto the wall in a montage of Italian style images. A few days later Dolly walks into his life for real when Dino gets the chance to enter the criminal world when he's asked to hide a prostitute in the attic of his family's home. In terms of subject matter 'Do You Remember Dolly Bell?' is hardly original; in fact it has a lot in common with many western movies made around the time, or perhaps just a couple of years later. There's the awkwardness of first love, the conflict between the generations and the dissatisfaction of youth. The story can easily be lifted from the 1960s setting or the Sarajevo backdrop without altering the essence. The 1960s generally saw a liberalisation of attitudes across much of Europe, not just in Yugoslavia although there young people were not rebelling against their parents or 'the establishment' but against and harsh and inflexible regime that had been based on the idea of the collective and not the individual. If you do wish to think of the film in context, however, there's a lot to get your teeth into. The story may be set in the 1960s but it was made at a time when it was only just beginning to be possible to question the socialist (as it more correctly was in Yugoslavia) system. It would not be another ten years until the break up of Yugoslavia would begin but Kustarica does make a strong, though understated, point in showing how Dino's father, a Muslim who has renounced his faith, remains loyal to the party in spite of his feelings that they aren't interpreting Marxism correctly. He believes whole-heartedly in a system he believes will provide for everyone even though his family has been on the waiting list for a state owned house for over a decade, forced to live in a squalid one room apartment in the meantime while across the road the new houses remain unoccupied. Kustarica pokes fun at the solemnity and pomposity of the committee and subcommittee of 'the party'. The movie opens with what appears to be a meeting of the most serious kind and the chairman tells the floor "Comrades,the situation is very grave"; the situation is that of the youngsters that gather every night to play blaring western rock music and generally loaf around. It's decided to allow some spontaneous creativity and endorse the formation of a band to channel the energy of the local youngsters. Dino becomes the band's lead singer. 'Do you Remember Dolly Bell?' is not as obviously funny as some of Kustarica's later films and although there are a few moments of real hilarity, this film is best described as 'heart warming'. There are elements that could be depressing but ultimately Kustarica allows humanity to save the day. The quality of the lead performances plays a major part in this. This may be a subtitled film but there's no missing the obvious talents of Slavko Stimac who plays Dino and Slobodan Aligrudic as his father. Ljiljana Blagojevic plays the eponymous Dolly Bell; the character doesn't have the strength of some of the others but the path of the relationship is believable and tender and portrayed with just the right blend of warmth and eroticism. There are some wonderful shots of Sarajevo and the cinematography in general is well done. Details of Bosnian culture and identity are seamlessly blended in giving a further sense of place. I'm sure that anyone who has visited Sarajevo will find the backdrops fascinating. I found the picture quality of this DVD a little disappointing but typical of other movies I have seen from around this time transferred to disc. That said, it didn't have an impact of my enjoyment of an entertaining and thought provoking story that is well acted and visually stimulating. A short filmography of Kustarica and an interesting interview with the director himself form the extras to this DVD. Rated 15, subtitled Used copies from £14.38 through Amazon (not including postage). Sadly new copies are expensive and hard to find.
'Glaciers' is a strikingly visual novel - some might say novella, not just as this book is just 174 pages in paperback but because of the fleeting timescale of the story - and one that has certainly garnered plenty of positive attention, but it is also one that I think it would not be unfair to file under 'promising but not quite there yet'. Alexis Smith's poignant debut is notable for its pretty vignettes, scenes from a day in the life of a young woman living in contemporary Portland, in which evocative pictures are conjured up in just a few words. Sadly the weaknesses in the plot and in characterisation mean that 'Glaciers' remains just a series of very pretty postcards and never amounts to something more worthy of Smith's obvious ability. Isabel lives alone in a small Portland apartment, surrounded by vintage furnishings and home-wares, the relics of others peoples' lives. She works as a librarian, repairing damaged books, tucked away in the basement of the building, catching only snippets of what goes on outside her own little office. Isabel has a crush on Spoke, a quiet army veteran who does odd jobs in the library; on the day the story takes place, Isabel resolves to make her move and invite the taciturn object of her affections to a party. Scenes from Isabel's day alternate with her memories of her childhood in Alaska and her parents' divorce which resulted in her moving to the city; much of this adds nothing to the central aspect of the plot but is by far the most enjoyable element of 'Glaciers' not just because it feels less forced. The cover notes describe this as a 'story about longing' but I could help thinking that the juxtaposing of the longing that is Isabel's unrequited love for Spoke with her longing for a time and a landscape gone by, felt like an attempt to create a literary gravity that wasn't really there. I was instantly drawn to Isabel; like her I love to root around second hand stores and vintage markets and my home is full of 'pre-loved' treasures, but in many ways Isabel is a stereotypical heroine and the reasons for her love of such retro items are predictable and yet also under-developed. The biggest problem here is that having set Isabel up as this very particular type of person, she then behaves in a way that is incongruous with her character; most incredible of all is Spoke's reaction when Isabel finally finds the guts to tell him how she feels. Surprisingly I didn't hate 'Glaciers' as much as my judgment told me I ought to. Ultimately it's a triumph of style over substance, even if that style is achingly unoriginal. I like cookie and kitsch, I like vintage, I like cats and quiet cute guys and thrown together as they are here, those elements prove comfortably compelling. Even the individual scenes are beautifully written, each one filled with colour and detail and as fuzzy edged as an Instagram snap. Strung together, however, they don't work; the story lacks structure as well as credibility and ultimately suffers because of the focus on being hip and of the moment. In 'Glaciers' Alexis Smith has produced some memorable and rather beautiful prose; it's mellifluous and thoughtful and paints evocative snapshots of contemporary Americana. At times it's almost painfully hip and obsessed with outward appearances but there are glimpses of a talented writer who, if she can balance structure with style, is an appealing name to look out for. Published by Oneworld, July 2013 With thanks to the publisher for the review copy. This review first appeared under the pen name Mary Bor at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
I don't wear a great deal of make up but there are times when I want to, or when I think that a little bit of neutral make up gives a more polished appearance. Generally I use a daily moisturiser containing a sun protection element which is fine on its own but can cause make up to 'slip' if the weather is warm or I have been hurrying along on foot, or cycling. In these conditions I find a tinted moisturiser helpful but when I'm away in Slovenia and attending professional meetings, I use SunSense Daily Face because it has the added advantage of a sun protection factor of 50+. Described on the packaging as giving an 'invisible tint finish' this light lotion is not cheap but it with several functions it is an economic option if you are traveling light and you are the sort of person who prefers not to go out on the beach, or on the ski slopes for that matter, without a bit of slap on. It's made and, was developed in Australia, where a lot of emphasis is place on sun protection and it's the biggest selling sun protection brand there. SPF50+ may sound extreme but this is not a heavy zinc block, you can still develop a golden colour when wearing this and even if you are wearing it, you should still try to be in direct sunlight as little as possible during the hottest part of the day. Furthermore, as the intensity of the sun's rays is not wholly related to temperature, you should be suitably protected at all times during the hours of sunlight, not just when it's really hot. Wearing sunglasses can intensify the risk of sun damage to the skin because the glare bounces off the lenses onto the face, and this is also the case when in water or on the ski slopes. The sunscreen is 'broad spectrum' which means it gives protection against both UVA and UVB rays. It is rated UVA Superior with 4 stars making it one of the best products of its kind on the market as far as the element of protection is concerned. This comes only in only one colour which is fine because it is not intended to be a foundation, it is a lightly tinted sunscreen that improves skin tone and provides an more balanced look to the face. It is also recommended that you apply it to the neck area, particularly important because the skin is very delicate there. The cream is easily applied and rubs in effortlessly. The colour is so fine that an even application is easy and there's not going to be a 'tide mark'. There is, however, enough colour for it to show up if spilled on clothing so you do need to take care when applying it. Once on and sufficiently rubbed in, it doesn't come off on collars. The formulation is oil free so it is good for oily or combination skin. I find that my face can look quite oily in hot weather, but SunSense Daily Face makes it look less shiny without endless application of pore clogging powder. The cream has no fragrance. The only negative about this product is that it is contraindicated for sore or irritated skin so you can't really use it as an way of hiding already sunburned skin. For this reason it's advisable you start as you mean to go on and use this sunscreen as a matter of course, rather than reach for it when things go wrong. I did a skin test on the back of my hand before use too, something I would strongly advise. SunSense Daily Face comes in a 75 g flip cap tube which lasts a reasonable amount of time but doesn't take up too much room in a handbag and is fine for taking in your carry on liquids when flying. It is priced at £15.75 from John Lewis and can also be bought from branches of Rowlands Pharmacy and direct from the UK distributor Crawford Healthcare (from whence it is much more expensive at £18.50). In summer you should reapply this as frequently as you should a conventional sunscreen but I usually apply this when going somewhere I'd want to look a bit more polished, then switch to an ordinary high factor sunscreen later on in order to eke out my supply of Daily Face. I am still using a bag of 10 g sample tubes I was given by a pharmaceutical representative. These are not available for sale which is a shame as they are great for traveling with. I have been really impressed with SunSense Daily Face and will be buying a tube when my supplies run out.
Expensive scents should smell expensive; they should stand out, do something different, dazzle us with their complex combinations and clever accords, after all you pay more you expect more. The real find, though, is an inexpensive scent that appears expensive. When e-tailer cheapsmells.com recently emailed me about a promotion I couldn't resist taking a look at what they had for less than a tenner, and snapped up a 30 ml eau de parfum, Pierre Cardin Pour Femme for just £8.99 (and free postage). The Packaging While the outer packaging comes across as cheap and poor quality the bottle is much better. After peeling off the unnecessary cellophane outer wrapping there's a simple cardboard box, in metallic shades of bronze. This has a window showing the bottle inside. (The Ciao photo shows a larger size which does not have the window). The card is quite flimsy, not something I would keep very long. As my bottle contains 30 ml it isn't very big; in fact it fits nicely in my hand and because of it's quirky design it's something that doesn't just feel good to hold, it actually makes you want to pick it up again and again. The glass section looks like three layers one on top of the other but slightly twisted, a bit like when you start to turn the layers of a Rubik's cube. It's simple but stylish, more so than the brushed metal effect lid which would not seem so wrong if it physically felt less cheap. The Fragrance Pierre Cardin Pour Femme is described as a 'fruity floral'. It's no longer listed among the scents on the Pierre Cardin website and there are variations in the notes listed on different retailers and perfume specialist websites. However, the following are a pretty good summary: Top notes: orange, blackcurrant, cinnamon and apple Middle notes: violet, hawthorn, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley and rose Base notes: sandalwood, nectarine, tonka bean, amber, patchouli, musk, vanilla, caramel, vetiver and cedar The perfume opens with a lovely citrussy burst, not sharp but blended comfortably with fresh florals. I pick up something more like lemon, perhaps even bergamot, rather than the orange that is listed and owning a lot of zesty bergamot dominated perfumes I was pleased that this soon faded a little behind the florals. In the first few minutes this fragrance seems not to know where to go next. It jumps around from citrus to floral and then to slightly sweet and spicy with a definite aroma of coconut that is definitely not listed in any summaries I have seen. For a while it is similar too Avon's 'Tahitian Holiday', a favourite of mine so to be reminded of it was not a problem. After about fifteen minutes Pierre Cardin Pour Femme has settled into a pleasant, modern floral that is light but distinctive and not at all cloying in spite of there being rose there, a note I find can sometimes seem overbearing and old fashioned. The jasmine is very distinctive and my favourite element of this perfume but I also love the occasional whiff of violet, another of my favourite florals. For me the base notes come in rather too soon and the lovely floral elements fade too soon with only the jasmine hanging around. After an hour or so you're left with a slightly sweet and slightly spicy blend of cinnamon, vanilla and tonka bean against a warm sandalwood background. What I find really unusual and quite compelling is the pronounced green element as the scent develops, in complete contrast to the wood and spice, though the two work don't battle with each other. I can't claim to pick out vetiver or cedar in particular but I assume that's where the greenness is coming from. Value for Money This scent doesn't project very well which isn't an issue for me. I buy perfumes to please myself not others (though it's always nice when someone admires what I'm wearing) and scents like this that stay close to the skin are the ones I tend to wear for work. While I'd prefer the middle phase to last a bit longer I love that the jasmine remains quite strong even when almost nothing else remains. If you like jasmine based scents then I think this one is unlikely to disappoint. Overall longevity isn't bad, but as I've already stated, the phases I like best don't last long enough; however, as this is a relatively inexpensive perfume I don't begrudge a re-application after two hours or so, just to pick up those violet notes again. Without a reapplication the scent lasts around five hours on my skin which is acceptable given the price, although I'd really expect more from an eau de parfum. I'm really happy with my purchase; Pierre Cardin Pour Femme has exceeded my expectations. It's a fresh and modern scent, perhaps better suited to daytime wear but one that is more complex than the price tag might suggest. The promotion I enjoyed is no longer running but Pierre Cardin Pour Femme remains inexpensive. cheapsmells.com - £10.95 for 30 ml, £13.95 for 50 ml (topcashback.co.uk is offering a cash-back rate of up to 6.82% at the time of writing, 15th August 2013) directcosmetics.com - £13.49 for gift set of 50 ml edp and 150 ml body lotion
Adequate suncare is vital to protect us not only from the pain of sunburned skin and the risk of cancer caused by the sun's harmful rays, but also to prevent premature ageing of the skin. I think people neglect this essential part of personal care partly from laziness, partly from the misguided belief that they will need to be out in the sun for a long time and in blazing sun to require protection and partly because they deem the products available to be too expensive. I've always been a bit skeptical about the budget suncare brands but the labelling and testing of suncare products has lately become more reliable making it a little easier for consumers to know what they're getting. If you look on the back of your bottle of sun cream or spray you should see a circle with the letters UVA inside. This means that the product gives protection against UVA rays. However, as the price of your product increases (usually) you'll see a number of little stars on the bottle too, from one to five stars; this denotes the level of protection the product provides against UVA rays (one being at the lower end, five at the top); however, there's no requirement for a manufacturer to add those stars and it's entirely possible your product can be giving you a good level of protection even if no stars are shown. (Of course, you might assume that the manufacturers with the most expertise will want to ensure they clearly show how effective their product has been proven to be.) I recently bought this SPF 30 suncare spray from Superdrug's Essential range. Superdrug labels products in the Essential range: "This product is just one of hundreds in the Essential range from Superdrug. each has been designed to give you a no frills, quality product for an affordable price". As I spend a lot of time outdoors cycling and walking (and recently a frustrating amount of time waiting for buses in a shade free location) I get through a lot of sun cream. I like to have a healthy tanned colour (but I don't go out deliberately to sun bathe) but I have naturally fair skin so I ensure I wear protection and re-apply it regularly. I wear sunglasses most of the time so I do tend to wear SPF 50 on my face because the glare of the sun reflects off the glasses and can be more dangerous on the face but I find that SPF 30 is adequate on hot days in the UK if frequently re-applied. In theory this spray will allow you to spend thirty times longer in the sun with just one application: so if you normally burn after ten minutes exposure, you should be able in theory to be out for 300 minutes before burning if wearing this sun care product. Personally I don't believe that it's safe to spend five hours in the hot sun with only one application of cream or spray and I know that I would burn if I did that. This product is labelled water resistant but as with all such products you should re-apply immediately after swimming. This Essential spray comes in a white bottle which tapers slightly to make it easier to grasp and has ridges in the tapered section so it's easier to grip with hands that have touched the spray. The lid stays on well which is good for me because the bottle tends to get thrown into the backpack with a load of other stuff., including unwrapped fruit. The spray is dispensed using a pump mechanism which is easy to depress with one hand. The product is white and has an appealing fragrance which is apparent but not overpowering. The spray is non greasy and easily absorbed but I do find you need to use a lot to get good coverage. I usually carry wet wipes when out and about but after rubbing this product into my skin I find i can climb back on my bike and not worry about wiping my hands. I tend to wear old t-shirts when out cycling so I don't worry if sun cream gets on my clothing but I have found that the spray does not mark clothing. I've been using this product for about three weeks now and it has certainly been the weather to trial it. I haven't burned while out for quite long periods including unavoidably being outside in the hottest part of the day in temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties. I've used this product according to the instructions applying twenty minutes before going outdoors and re-applying frequently. The only negative for me is that I found that the back of my hands did burn; it's a part of my body that is particularly sun sensitive and I have returned to using my Sunsense SPF 50, an Australian product that is only of the only things I have found that stops me coming out in a rash on that part of my body. The product is dermatologically approved and I'm sure that the rash is due to my skin sensitivity to the sun, and not to the sun spray. This spray comes in a 200 ml bottle only which is disappointing as a smaller one would meet the cabin baggage liquids allowance and would be more convenient for putting in a handbag and would be easier to carry in a pocket while cycling if I didn't want to take a bag. As a keen recycler, however, I do keep small pump action bottles to re-use and I just decant into the smaller container as I need to. At just £2.49 for 200 ml this is an inexpensive product. It's good to know that it offers some UVA protection but it would be useful to have a star rating too. As it is not explicitly clear how much protection this spray gives I would avoid prolonged use and I wouldn't use it in very hot countries when on holiday and likely to be exposed more frequently and for longer periods. If you are watching your spending and baulk at the cost of other brands, then I suggest you give this product a try. I've found it no less effective than brands like Solait or Soltan based on similar usage and it appears to offer reasonable value for money.
These days I find greetings cards expensive and prefer to make my own if I have time. This way I can save money and make cards that are more personal to the intended recipients. This does, of course, require some initial outlay and among the items I would say are essential to a basic kit are these 'Sticki Pads' made by Bostik. These tiny double sided foam sticky pads are just the thing for creating 3D effects on your cards; they stand only slightly proud of the card but it's enough to create a good effect. It's all very well to stick pretty or interesting things to the front of your card but creating a 3D effect will give some added style to your design and make it look more professional. A number of other uses - such as scrap-booking and model making - are suggested on the packaging but so far I have only used them for card making. There are 440 of these pads in one packet and this should last the occasional card maker a good while. Each one is just 5mm square and, though they are pure white, their size means that if you position them well and work tidily they aren't visible (unless you make an effort to look for them). For a more enhanced effect you can group them in little clusters or one on top of another to raise the stuck on item even further from the surface of the card. Using a pad instead of glue eliminates the risk of glue oozing or dripping and looking unslightly, especially on coloured card, but if you are thinking of them as an alternative to glue for young children, you'll probably find that younger children will find them too small to work with. They come on one easy peel sheet but I think it would be more practical for this product to come in two smaller sheets as it would make it a little easier to peel off single pads. Usually I can just my fingers to transfer the pads to the item I want to stick to the card; this is the easiest method because while you can remove and re-position the pad if you do it quickly enough (and depending on the surface) they aren't really intended to be re-positionable. By applying the pad to the decoupage detail you can hold the item up to your card and move it around to find the right position before sticking it on. For fine, intricate work you may find that using tweezers makes things slightly easier. The pads are acid free which means you can use them on a variety of card and paper types without a mark appearing on the reverse. Bostik says these pads are not suitable for "absorbent, damp, dusty, delicate or newly decorated surfaces". I wouldn't recommend them for the sticking on of anything heavier than simple foam, paper or card shapes. I occasionally buy packs of decorations for card making some of which require you to provide the 'stick'; things I have tried like small metal charms are just a bit too heavy for these pads and tend to pull on the card, dragging down the corners and eventually falling off. This 440 pads pack is currently available (at the time of writing 7th August 2013) from Amazon priced at £1.99 (delivery is free); if you have a branch of the Works nearby you can currently pick them up for just 99 Pence and the offer applies to their website too although the company does impose a delivery charge. Ryman currently charges £1.59 for the same product but members of Topcashback.co.uk can buy them for £1.39 AND get up to 8.4% cashback on purchases. As an amateur card maker I find these pads simple to use, mess free and just the thing for adding a little style to simple cards. Old hands at card making who have all the specialist tools will probably find them a little basic but for children or beginners they are a good standby item and represent good value for money.
To celebrate twenty-one years since the launch of their almost iconic body butters, the Body Shop is offering all items in the range at a much reduced promotional price (offer applies at the time of writing on 27th July 2013). At a not insignificant £6.50 a shot, however, this is still quite pricey but for consumers with limited means (or who simply wish to spend a bit less) the Arora range of body butters by Superdrug are worth a look. In this review I focus heavily on how the Arora range compares against the Body Shop's body butters because many consumers will have tried the Body Shop's equivalent product. The Body Shop's ethical credentials are well known but if this is the reason to favour their products over those of other brands, it may appease your conscience to know that Superdrug is against animal testing and these body butters are labelled as suitable for vegetarians and have the seal of approval from the BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection). In addition the packaging is PET1 which is one of the most widely recyclable plastics in the UK (my local authority will only accept PET 1 and PET2 in the recycling collections they make from domestic properties). Superdrug's Arora range comprises these body butters, body scrubs, 'bath shimmers' and 'shower nectars' in a range of (mainly) fruity fragrances. While the packaging doesn't have the kudos and upmarket feel of the Body Shop's offering, you do, at least, have the advantage that it can be recycled. Unlike the Body Shop's butters, the Arora product comes only in a 200ml package which is a shame as a travel size container would be a nice addition to the range. Superdrug describes this product thus: "A luxurious, moisturising body butter with a fresh, fruity fragrance and extracts of pomegranate and apple. Nourishing shea butter and glycerin help to leave skin soft and smooth." My favourite fragrance of the range is the 'Pomegranate Passion': the scent is distinctive but not overpowering and lingers on the skin for a few hours after application. I think that very few people would pick out pomegranate in this scent but the scent is generically fruity with the apple coming out most strongly. It's sweet apples, not crisp green ones. The contents are a pleasing pale pink and the consistency is rather firm. The directions state that you should use a generous amount of body butter in one application but digging in to get the product out requires a bit of work. I approve of this, though, because it means you can't really accidentally scoop out too much in the way you can with softer, runnier products. This body butter is non greasy and is absorbed quickly into my skin. Among the ingredients are sunflower oil and mango oil which are both known as effective skin softening agents. I don't have particular concerns with dry skin (and if I did I'd probably not use something so highly perfumed to treat it) so I tend to apply it just to those areas that are a bit drier such as my elbows and knees. I'm happy with the effect it has on my elbows particularly. I'm usually quite diligent when it comes to moisturising my skin but occasionally I forget or skip a day or two and if I do, my elbows seem to become dry again quite quickly; the Arora product is great because it doesn't take long to get them feeling soft and smooth again. The full price is £3.99 but Superdrug is currently selling this for £1.97 (which is slightly less than half price). This works out to 99p/100ml compared with £3.25/100 ml for the Body Shop product making the Arora product exceptional value (even with the Body Shop's current offer) for a product that compares favourably in terms of performance. Having used both ranges I am happy that Arora is at least as effective as the Body Shop's range. Other fragrances in the Arora range are: Coconut Creme, Chocolate Espresso, Pink Grapefruit, Sweet Vanilla, and Wild Berry.
I am quite impulsive when it comes to travel. Take my recent trip to London; I snapped up some bargain train tickets to the capital then thought of looking for accommodation. Of course, the prices for hotels were not so attractive as the price I paid for the tickets and I was just becoming resigned to spending more than I really wanted to when I came across Tommy Miah's Raj Hotel. Last year we passed a hotel billed as an 'Indian themed hotel' in Edinburgh and when we got home I Googled it and read some reviews. As my other half is India/curry obsessed I thought a stay at this establishment might make a good place to stay for a surprise birthday treat but the reviews said otherwise and I forgot all about the place. When I saw Tommy Miah's Raj Hotel advertised when seeking out accommodation in London I did remember the Edinburgh place but didn't think the two were connected and on this occasion I didn't care about the Indian connection, I was merely thinking in terms of price and location. It wasn't until the day of our arrival when I needed to let the hotel receptionist know the time of our expected arrival that I spotted a link at the bottom of the homepage on the hotel's website that there was a link to the sister hotel in Edinburgh: so they are connected. A look at the homepage from Tommy Miah's hotels reveals that the man himself is a chef who was born in Bangladesh but grew up in Birmingham where he did his chef's training. He founded the Indian Chef of the Year Awards and is apparently a celebrity chef on Indian television. Location Tommy Miah's Raj Hotel is situated on Essex Road in Islington, N1; it's approximately halfway between Islington Green and Newington Green (about ten to twelve minutes walk in either direction) and about seven minutes walk from Highbury Corner if you know the territory and cut down Canonbury Street. This is my old stamping ground; I lived in nearby Holloway when I first moved to London and I tend to spend a fair bit of time in the borough of Islington when I visit London so the location of the hotel is ideal for my needs. The nearest tube stations are the Angel on the Northern Line or Highbury & Islington on the Victoria Line. There are frequent buses passing by and it's about fifteen minutes from King's Cross St Pancras; the 73 bus passes right outside the hotel and this is a really useful service that passes through Islington Green, King's Cross, Euston, Bloomsbury, Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Park Lane and Hyde Park before it reaches its destination, Victoria. Across the road is Essex Road overland station which provides another public transport option. There are plenty of pubs, restaurants and shops nearby as well as a number of interesting and diverse attractions such as The Ettorick Collection of Italian Art and Islington's famous Almeida Theatre. Arsenal's Emirates Stadium is a twenty minute walk or a five minute bus ride from nearby Upper Street. Booking I booked through an third party booking site but I believe you can book directly with the hotel. There are a couple of different grades of room and we chose a budget room for two, though we didn't know until we arrived whether that would be a twin or a double. I did jump in and book without reading many reviews of Tommy Miah's Raj Hotel so I was relieved later when I did bother to check out some reviews that I had inadvertently done the right thing by booking a budget room because these are in the basement and therefore impervious to the noise from the busy Essex Road. Essex Road is a major artery through North London and I know from experience that barely an hour goes by that there isn't a succession of sirens to be heard; however, the price and location persuaded me that I could put up with that for a couple of nights; getting a quieter room by default was an added bonus. We paid £65 per night for a twin room with private en suite in August 2013. Wi-Fi and breakfast were included in the price. This was approximately £30 cheaper than even a Travelodge and even many hostels in the area, none of which were offering breakfast in the price. First Impressions Although the fascia clearly indicates that this is a hotel, the exterior gives the impression that this is just a restaurant - which it also is. However, the restaurant area was in almost total darkness when we arrived just after 9.00 pm on a Friday evening and there were no diners there. In fact the restaurant is nothing more than a place to sit and eat food which the staff send in for from a nearby takeaway (they do the same thing in the Edinburgh restaurant). However, the website states that the hotel has connections with a number of Indian restaurants in London and can arrange reservations (and a discount). Care has been taken to present Tommy Miah's as a smart establishment, at least as far as the public areas are concerned. Although there isn't much space they've managed to fashion a small reception area to one side of the restaurant in which there are a couple of comfortable chairs and lots of well tended plants. With the exterior painted a rather a la mode charcoal the overall impression is as good as any of the upmarket Islington gastro pubs. As it was an extremely warm night I wanted to see the room before handing over any payment; I suspected that our room would be windowless but I wanted to check that there was at least a fan. The receptionist was absolutely fine about the request and showed us the room, even allowing us to take a moment in the room and pay later on our way out for the evening (or what was left of it). A Room with No View Our room was pretty much as I expected. Having seen photographs online of both the London and Edinburgh hotels I was aware that the establishment could only very tenuously be referred to as a 'Raj' hotel, though you have to admire their chutzpah for trying. A slightly spangly runner at the base of each bed, a contemporary but vaguely ethnic canvas print and a kind of Indian influenced wooden mirror surround were the only decorative nods to the Raj theme and had I not know what to expect I might have felt let down. Still, I had taken a chance with this hotel knowing that we'd spend very little time in the room and it was at least clean and equipped with what we'd need for a two night stay. The en suite bathroom looked newly refurbished and it was larger and more practical than those pods bathrooms you find in some of the budget chains. There was a wardrobe should we need to hang any clothes and a decent amount of storage space for our bags and for non-hanging clothes. A hospitality tray was well provided with tea bags, coffee, milk and sugar and I was surprised to find that these were replenished while the room was serviced; given the low cost I was even surprised that the room was serviced since we were only staying two nights. Breakfast We skipped breakfast at the hotel on our first morning in favour of a rather more upmarket affair at nearby Ottolenghi but in the aftermath of a day splashing out on some of the best ethnic dining the capital has to offer, we reined in our spending and took breakfast at the hotel on our second morning. It was a basic breakfast and to describe it as 'continental' as the receptionist did was pushing it a little. Coffee was provided but pots of tea had to be requested. There were two types of juice including what I know was Rubicon mango, even if it had been decanted into a jug, so there was none of the usual watery fruit drink served at many cheaper hotels (and some not so cheap ones too). I avoided the cereal in case of contamination with nuts and satisfied myself with a yoghurt, a banana and a crumpet pilfered from my partner's plate since I could not be bothered to wait myself at the very slow toaster. One toaster was really not sufficient for a place this size and I heard more than one guest moaning about having to wait. I might have had a croissant but it was a long time since they'd been warmed up, if at all. Value for Money I can't really find much to complain about given the price we paid. Breakfast was basic but since it was included in an already reasonable room price it seems picky to complain; at these prices you can afford to skip breakfast if it doesn't appeal and there are plenty of places nearby if you would rather have a cheap cooked breakfast (though the hotel will rustle one up for an extra charge) or a more refined healthy breakfast muffin and a cappuccino. The room could have been unbearable as it lacked a window but there was a decent electric fan and a small air conditioning unit and it didn't take long to cool the room before sleeping. The only thing I really didn't like was not having a window and that was only because, on waking, it was not possible to have an idea of what time it might be without sitting up, turning the light on and finding my watch. Due to the arrangement of the rooms over the floors there wasn't as much noise as I had been dreading and though we did hear our neighbours come back in the early hours, there was minimal noise and the doors seem to close quietly. If you need to be in this part of London, or don't mind a short bus or tube ride to get into the West End, and are looking for something that is cheap but comfortable Tommy Miah's Raj Hotel is a good option. There are various room options from single to triples and family rooms as well as a small studio apartment situated near the main hotel. Parking is problematic and as many nearby streets are 'residents' parking only' I would suggest contacting the hotel for advice if planning to travel to London by car. I know this place won't suit those visitors looking for luxury and I wouldn't personally want to spend much time in a room the size of ours. The more expensive rooms do have windows and are larger but don't seem to offer much more in terms of facilities. I would (and probably will) stay here again and would recommend it to budget focused travelers who just want somewhere secure and comfortable to sleep and wash.