Sunday, December 18, 2005

Go To Gujarat The One-Hit Wonder

Go To Gujarat The One-Hit Wonder

India is a place to be savoured. It can't be done in a single holiday. Jeremy Atiyah suggests one very good region to start your journey

Published: 18 December 2005

Tourists hoping to conquer India in a fortnight are doomed to disappointment. The lesson is this: if you want to visit small towns, travel cross-country, meet locals not in the tourist trade - then you have to concentrate on a single region. But which region? Some candidates were obvious: Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala. But would my experience of these tourist destinations be sufficiently authentic?

It was my tour operator, Trans-Indus, which first suggested Gujarat. Until now, all I knew about Gujarat was that it had a thuggish state governor and that it had suffered a terrible earthquake in 2001.

But now I also know that it is one of India's most prosperous states and the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. It has mosques and temples, wildlife reserves, beaches, old forts and exquisite handicrafts.

So Gujarat it would be. A two-week itinerary was prepared, with a guide and driver placed at my disposal. The hot season was beginning to broil, but in an age of air-conditioning I had little to fear.

And at Bhavnagar, I immediately found myself in an old maharajah's pad, the Nilambagh Palace. Out and about, the trappings of the "authentic" India were instantly to hand: the lounging cows, the piles of fruit, the bubbling tea, the frying food, the burning sun, the waving children, the rascally sadhus, the multitudinous domes and minarets...

Gujarat, I was delighted to note, even turned out to be blessed with several large patches of wilderness. Not far outside Bhavnagar stretch the grasslands of the Velavadar nature reserve, grazed by herds of skittish blackbuck deer. Over the coming days I would enjoy similar safari-esque experiences, both at Sasangir (home of the last Asiatic lion) and the Little Rann of Kutch (frequented by India's only wild ass).

But culture was the main thing. On my second day in Gujarat, I panted up a mountain outside the town of Palitana to reach one of the holiest sites of the Jain religion. At the summit, pilgrims in white cotton robes shuffled amid towers and trees; the only sounds were of distant chanting, bells in the wind, and the squawking of green parrots. The views extended over half of Gujarat.

And beaches? Oh yes. Descending from the temples to the baking plains, I set off for Diu on the southern coast of the Saurashtra peninsula. Strictly speaking, this is not quite Gujarat; as a former Portuguese colony, it falls under direct rule from Delhi. An advantage of this, for the tourist, is that Gujarat's anti-alcohol laws do not apply here. Suddenly, the scenery was lush and tropical. In damp churches, primitive wooden effigies of forgotten saints were rotting in the tropical air. Diu was a place to enjoy a cold beer and a meal of fried fish cooked by an old woman called Fatima D'Souza, before spending the night in a place like the Pensao Beira Mar.

Next morning I headed inland once more. My destination was Junagadh, though this dusty, historic town seemed to warrant a stay of days rather than hours. Its centre is dominated by the palace of the old Muslim Nawab, who in 1947 had declared his intention of joining Junagadh to Pakistan. So many Gujarati towns are dominated by epic palaces, the remnants of that disreputable but seductive century - from around 1840 to 1940 - when India's princes found themselves free to spend their burgeoning revenues on culture, music, art, lakes, palaces and hunting - but seldom on their subjects.

In Gondal, later, I once again enjoyed a maharajah's ease at the Orchard Palace hotel, eating amid shady terraces, ancient retainers and dilapidated furnishings. The spindly manager showed us the antique car collection of the royal family of Gondal. "Oh yes," he murmured, sadly, caressing the bonnet of a 1940s Chevrolet. "Things were better then."

Not that Gujarat was just about palaces. I now took a different route, north, into the Great Rann of Kutch, a desolate wilderness of salt flats that marked the borderland between India and Pakistan.
Architectural masterpieces were few: even the famed city of Bhuj, since the earthquake of 2001, is not the attraction it was. In spite of the damage, however, the villages of Kutch remain a treasure trove. Their crafts are among the finest in India. I regretted having only a day in which to meet shawl makers, weavers, potters and painters; for them the earthquake seems to have brought hope. Foreign funds are arriving. Co-operatives have been established to maintain traditional skills, sell merchandise and entertain tourists. You will never feel more strongly motivated to buy souvenirs than in Kutch.

After the Great Rann, my next destination was the Little Rann. Here I took a room in a delightful village-style camp called Rann Riders, the property of an organic farmer and Islamic gentleman-scholar called Malik, now 65 years old, who, until a few decades ago, had been destined for a small kingship. Thanks to Indira Gandhi's abolition of the old royal titles of India, this had not come to pass, but the 24 villages of his former jurisdiction still showed him respect. At dusk a camel-drawn cart took me away along dusty tracks to surrounding villages. I will never forget the welcoming villages of Dasada and Zinzuwada. Old men in fancy shoes milked their cows; women with pots on their heads stood in carved teak doorways; a monumental Hindu gate, festooned with faceless gods, crumbled in the sunset.

My only anxiety, in this rustic haven, was the thought that I would soon be heading for one of India's greatest cities. Ahmadabad was next. When we got there, a goodly proportion of India's teeming millions were out on the streets selling vegetables. My hotel, the House of MG, was a boutique that would not have looked out of place in Chicago. Perhaps this was the place to end the tour.

But Rajasthan was only a short drive away. So I fled to the state border and checked into a room that resembled an exotic museum, in a hotel called Udai Bilas Palace, beside a lake in Dungarpur. When the son of the last maharajah came to chat to me at sunset, he pointed at a stork's nest in the tree above the swimming pool. "Our aim," he explained calmly, "is to keep things simple." Keeping things simple? In India? I laughed. Having reached Dungarpur, I was in no mood for simplicity. Udaipur was within touching distance. From there, I could drive on to Jodhpur. And then to Jaipur. And then to Delhi, and...

A peacock screamed. The maharajah's son looked up. And I suddenly remembered, with a savage pang of regret, that India could never be conquered in a fortnight.

Jeremy Atiyah flew to Mumbai with Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin which offers flights from £425 from 25 December to 31 March 2006. He travelled around Gujarat courtesy of Trans-Indus (020-8566 2729;, which has a 15-day tour, including flights, full board b&b and guides, from £1,998 per person

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi

A bed for the night in Vietnam

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 25 September 2005

The location
In the old town of Hanoi, on a quiet street, just a couple of minutes' walk from the central Hoan Kiem Lake. It is to Hanoi what the Raffles is to Singapore: quite simply the classiest hotel in town. More than 100 years old, it was already regarded as the best hotel in Indo-China during the time of French rule. In the 1920s, guests included Somerset Maugham (who finished The Gentlemen in the Parlour here) and Noël Coward, who was "not allowed out of the hotel, as there was a revolution in progress". Later, Graham Greene, in The Quiet American, said the hotel was populated by French officers and their wives. (Today a Graham Greene cocktail at the Bamboo Bar, contains gin, dry vermouth and cassis). Outside, the Metropole still resembles a rambling villa, with a sleepy line of waiting bicycle rickshaws. Inside are dark wood, creaking stairwells and photos of ancient Mandarins, and beautiful staff.

All the top people stay here - but you can often get a bargain room rate.

The comfort factor
Very high, although the emphasis is on understated colonial elegance, rather than on vulgar New World glitz. The 232 whitewashed rooms have vintage furniture, shuttered windows and floor-to-ceiling curtains. Finding chocolate truffles and meringues on your pillow, you will probably dream that you are in France.

The bathroom
A fine array of brightly coloured and subtle-smelling unguents await, possibly to distract your attention from the bathroom itself, which is in need of modernisation - the flapping shower curtain is not quite in keeping with the five-star facilities.

The food and drink
The hotel contains two of the best restaurants in Vietnam. Prices are high by Vietnamese standards, but low for an international, five-star hotel. The Beaulieu is a traditional French restaurant, which is as old as the hotel itself and has an astounding wine list. From $28 (£16) a head for a set three-course meal. The Spice Garden is an excellent Vietnamese restaurant, where you can sample the dishes of old Hanoi, including items as humble as noodles and spring rolls. Set menus from $26 (£14) per head.

The people
Rich tourists, jet-setters and conference delegates; I saw one group of Russian oil-magnates and their bodyguards trying to stay sober in the Spice Garden. Also expect a steady stream of prime ministers, presidents, royalty and movie stars.

Things to do
Join a one-day cookery course conducted by the chef of the Spice Garden Restaurant. She starts at the market (travelling by bicycle rickshaw) and then shows you how to put together some basic dishes such as sautéed pumpkin branches with garlic, Hanoi deep-fried spring rolls and Vietnamese banana flower salad and marinated pork grilled in bamboo. Otherwise, lounge in the Bamboo Bar by the pool while a glamorous female pianist plays nearby. And, of course, beyond the front door there's the whole of Hanoi to explore.

The access
Children welcome. No wheelchair access.

The damage
Doubles usually available for $130 (£72) per night.

The address
The Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen, Hanoi, Vietnam (0870-609 0961;

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Masseria San Domenico

Masseria San Domenico

A bed for the night in Puglia

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 04 September 2005

The location
A converted masseria, which means farmhouse, with a watchtower at its heart. It is constructed from beautiful white stone with baroque flourishes and set in more than a hundred acres of olive groves and orchards. The province is rural Puglia, deep in Italy's heel, roughly 45km (28 miles) south of Bari.

Probably the most exclusive hotel in Puglia - visitors without reservations are not even allowed into its grounds. Facilities include a private beach and seawater swimming pool, an 18-hole golf course, a first-class spa/thalassotherapy centre and tennis courts.

The comfort factor
Rooms have French doors that open straight out onto olive groves. The beds are of the highest quality.

The bathroom
All the luxuries you expect.

The food and drink
The breakfast is a vast buffet in a huge sunny room. Dinner is even more splendid, in the San Domenico restaurant, with its columns and 300-year-old vaulted ceilings. It is a pricey and formal affair, but not wholly removed from the peasant simplicity of cheaper restaurants in Puglia; most of the fruit and vegetables, and the olive oil, come from the estate. Dinner for two without wine costs around €110 (£80).

The people
Restaurant guests wear jackets and ties and suchlike finery. The bar, with its private little niches, creates a sense of discreet exclusivity.

The area
The rocky seashore is a few hundred metres away and the small fishing village of Savelletri di Fasano three minutes' drive. Nearby too are the extensive ruins of the ancient city of Egnazia. A further short drive away is the lovely Valle d'Itria with its trulli and historic towns.

The access
Many of the rooms are in ground-floor annexes with no staircases to negotiate, although none are specifically modified for people with disabilities. Children welcome. Pets not allowed.

The damage
From €350 (£250) per room per night until the end of September.

The address
Masseria San Domenico, Strada Litoranea 379, 72015 Savelletri di Fasano, Brindisi, Italy (00 39 080 482 7769). The hotel is a member of Great Hotels of the World (0800-032 4254;

Sunday, May 8, 2005

A landscape like this deserves a good write-up

A landscape like this deserves a good write-up

George Sand hated Mallorca. Jeremy Atiyah follows in her footsteps and wonders what the 19th-century author was complaining about

Published: 08 May 2005

After visiting Mallorca with her lover, Frederic Chopin, in 1838-39, George Sand returned to France to compose one of the most malicious travel memoirs ever written. "Travellers habitually enlarge on the good fortune of the southern races," she scoffed, in A Winter in Majorca. "This is an error ... from which I am now safely delivered." She went on to describe the people of Mallorca - at length - as barbarians, thieves, hypocrites, cowards, monkeys and Polynesian savages. The typical Mallorcan peasant, she declared, led a "poor, witless existence". His prayer was a "senseless formula" and his songs expressed "that bleak melancholy which overwhelms him in spite of himself".

Given their climate, they had the potential to keep "the whole of France supplied with their exquisite oranges", but thanks to their "superb negligence", the trade remained scant. The local wheat was excellent, but the bread was "disgusting". The same went for the olives, which, "thanks to their Moorish inheritance", the Mallorcans knew how to cultivate. But where the oil thus produced should have been the finest in the world, it was in fact so "rancid and nauseating" that "every house, man and carriage in the island, and the very air of the fields, is saturated with its stench".

What can account for such bitterness? Sand was writing in an age before lager louts had been invented. Sand had had the fortune to stay in the most picturesque part of the island, in villages of pink stone, amid ancient terraced plantations of citrus and olive, by mountains where rugged peaks soared straight out of the Mediterranean. What was she complaining about? I am on my way to investigate.

Where Sand had to cross the island by coach, on wild paths beset by "ravines, torrents, swamps, quickset hedges and ditches", I have a train to assist me. Not that anything about this line is particularly hi-tech: the olive oil and citrus trade with Marseille paid for it, I am told, nearly 100 years ago. Palma and Soller are only 20 miles apart, but in old wooden carriages that creak and clank through the hills, the journey takes an hour.

From Soller, I walk across the valley to my hotel. Even in torrential rain, I am impressed. Grand old mansions dot the slopes. And the village of Fornalutx, when I get there, is built of pinkish-red stones, the same hue as the crags surround it. Ancient terraces, grazed by goats, climb up to craggy peaks. I check in at an immaculate little hotel called C'an Reus, where the exquisite lisp of the English owner makes me proud to be her compatriot. I dine on suckling pig and rabbit with onions and a stew of cabbage, bread and garlic. How to improve on this?

"Perfect weather for walking," says the lady with the lisp, the next morning, as I stare up from the terrace behind my hotel at cliffs that disappear into black clouds. She is right. My plan is to spend a couple of days trekking along this coast. And I soon find myself in the most ancient olive groves I have ever seen, containing trees that date back a thousand years, to the long peace of the Moorish occupation. Sand likened these trees to "a horde of strange fantastic monsters", including dragons, wrestlers, centaurs, dwarfs and dancing satyrs. Goats bleat at me from on high. I chew on a carob pod tasting of soap and cheese as I go.

The trail is not quite empty, but neither is it swarming with drunken escapees from Magaluf. I pass a handful of fellow hikers as I wind down through the gorgeous valley of Balitx. One of the old farmsteads catches my eye: an ancient square tower rising above the groves, beside a single palm tree. Inside, the owner's olive press may be covered in cobwebs and his agricultural implements may be rusting, but his orange juice - of which he now squeezes me a glass - is the fuel I need to carry me out of the valley. On reaching the pass, I am surprised by the sight of a vast sea and the roar of distant waves.

That rain, mind you, has not gone away: I assume this is the same rain that Sand found so infuriating 166 years ago. As darkness falls, under renewed torrents, I catch a taxi to my next hotel, in Valldemossa.

According to the owner, the Hotel Valldemossa exists not to make money but to enable the world to appreciate the beauty of its location. The next morning, I can almost believe it: I open the curtains to find that I am perched on an outcrop in the middle of a green valley, surrounded by terraces and overlooked by a grand old Carthusian Monastery. That monastery, the Real Cartuja de Jesus de Nazaret, is the building where Sand, Chopin and her two children, took lodgings in 1838.

They lived in a monastery? Perhaps I can see why the Mallorcans didn't take to this trouser-wearing, cigarette-smoking, coffee-drinking 34-year-old French intellectual, living with her two godless children and a foppish, sickly, long-fingered musician who always wore his overcoat buttoned up to the chin. But, in a strange tribute to their persecutor, the Mallorcans don't hesitate to peddle Sand's book. It is on sale all over Valldemossa.

Or is this more in honour of Chopin than of Sand? The melancholy musician, after all, described Valldemossa as the most beautiful place in the world. "Here I am in the midst of palms and cedars and cactuses and olives and lemons and aloes and figs and pomegranates," he enthused, in a letter to Paris. "The sky is turquoise blue, the sea is azure, the mountains are emerald green ... all day long the sun shines and it is warm, and everybody wears summer clothes."

Even Sand was willing to concede the natural charms of the island, calling it a "painter's Eldorado". But she could not accept that Chopin genuinely liked Mallorca. Given his "detestation of the sordid", he "naturally enough took a violent dislike to the island". And when, in spite of their difficulties in finding a suitable piano, he composed the beautiful "Raindrop Prelude", Sand heard in it the sound not only of "raindrops beating on the echoing roof-tiles" but also of "tears from heaven, beating on his heart".

I approach the monastery on foot, accompanied by coach-loads of German tourists in plastic macs. We are looking for the cell where Sand and Chopin resided; a cell from which the monks had only just been expelled. Though "cell", I discover, is a misnomer. Their former lodgings turn out to comprise three rooms under vaulted ceilings, fronted by a large terrace, decorated with trees, flowers and festoons of creeper. The views, over groves, down to the distant sea, are glorious.

Not that George Sand was satisfied. She liked the location. But although most of the monks had been expelled a couple of years before, one remained as a constant irritation: "a wild animal", whose brain had "given way, under the combined assaults of wine and religious enthusiasm". His approach "was heralded from afar by broken exclamations and the beat of his staff on the flagstones".

At least it was possible to avoid him. What was impossible to avoid was the weather. Fog hung over the landscape like a "damp shroud", while icy winds moaned through the long corridors. Maybe I can see what she meant. I am not suffering from the cold, but this rain is persistent. On my last afternoon, I walk along the coast west from Soller to Deia. Again, I am surprised by glimpses of the sea crashing on the cliffs below. On my left, I begin to get dark glimpses of Mount Teix, buried in clouds; for the poet Robert Graves, Deia's most famous resident, Teix was a numinous place, haunted by ancient spirits.

These days, real estate in Deia is bought by film stars rather than poets. But 100 years ago, virtually this whole coast - one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean - was owned by Archduke Ludvig Salvador of Austria, a relative of the Habsburg emperor. Like Graves after him, the Archduke fell in love with the island and its people. He spent much of his life here, up to his death in 1915, working on a seven-volume encyclopaedia of its natural history. He even owned a hostel near Deia, where passers-by could stay without payment. His special secret was a local peasant girl, Catalina Homar, whom he had taken to be a manager of his estates - and his lover.

Years after she died, the Archduke wrote a small book, "thickly bedewed with tears", celebrating her generosity, her success in cultivating grapes (her wines won prizes in Paris and Chicago), her love of animals and nature, and her universal goodness. When the Empress of Austria visited Mallorca, it was said, even she fell for the island girl's charms.

For the Archduke, the instinctive hospitality of the Mallorcans was unique. "I do not exaggerate a bit," he wrote, "when I say that any foreigner can travel across the whole island without ever needing to stay at a hotel. It is enough to knock on the door of the first house that he finds on the road, be it a luxurious mansion of a Spanish nobleman, or the humble cottage of a mountain peasant." This custom, he believed, was a consequence of the intense love Mallorcans felt for their land. To be separated from their land would cause them to fade away and die.

Mount Teix, behind me, has vanished in the fog. I am due to spend tonight at one of the Archduke's old properties, the four-star Sa Pedrissa Hotel, just outside Deia. From its rustic gardens, I can look down over distant headlands in the twilight. As the sea fades to black, I think of poor Sand, whose hope in coming to Mallorca had been to nurse her sickly son, Maurice, back to health.

The Mallorcans, it seemed, had been in denial about their own climate. "Until the very end of the two months of downpour which we were obliged to endure," Sand wrote, furiously, "they insisted that it never rained in Majorca." In the event, the weather was so bad that a new disaster struck: Chopin's incipient consumption began to bite. In his room in the old stone monastery, three doctors called on him. "The first one told me I should die," he joked, grimly; "the second that I was dying, and the third that I was dead already." For Sand, her Mallorcan winter could not get much worse than this.


How to get there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled to Mallorca with Inntravel (01653 617906 Its Mountains & Villages of Mallorca independent walk costs from £788 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Palma, transfers, seven nights b&b with one dinner and two picnics, luggage transfers, walking maps and notes.

The Tren de Soller (00 34 971 630301; operates between Soller and Palma, stopping at Bunyola, Caubet, Santa Maria and Son Sardina from 8am until 7.30pm, daily, throughout the summer. One-way tickets cost €6.50 (£4.60) and return fares cost €11 (£7.80).

Where to eat
Ca N'Antuna restaurant, Fornalutx (00 34 971 633 068); Can Reus Hotel, Fornalutx (00 34 971 631 174); Valldemossa Hotel, Valldemossa (00 34 971 612 626); Sa Pedrissa Hotel, Deia (00 34 971 639 111).

Further information
Spanish Tourist Board (020-7486 8077; and

One hundred years on the tourist trail
Mallorca marks the centenary this year of the creation of its tourist board with a special programme of activities.
The main event is the Mallorca Tourist Board Centenary exhibition at the La Lonja Exhibition Centre in Palma (00 34 971 711 705). A visual record of 100 years of tourism on the island, it opens from 19 August for two months. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-2pm, 5pm-9pm, and Sunday afternoons, closed Mondays. Admission free.

Another exhibition featuring more than 100 works of art donated to the Mallorcan tourist board over the past century will be on display at the Es Baluard Museum in Palma (00 34 971 908200; until May. The gallery's debut exhibition, it is based around nine themes, including Mediterranean landscapes. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-8pm, closed Mondays. Admission free.
Both exhibitions are linked to the Mallorca Enchanted photographic showcase (020-7201 0753;, which will tour the UK until December. This month, the exhibition is in Warrington. Admission free.

Back on the island, a series of events will be held under the banner "A Winter in Mallorca" (00 34 971 72 53 96; from October to December, including 180 concerts by world-renowned soloists, chamber orchestras, choirs and jazz groups, and a special Christmas programme.

For further information contact the Mallorcan Tourist board (00 34 971 725 396;
Justin Talbot

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Spring is here, and it just has to be Paris

Spring is here, and it just has to be Paris

Ready for that seasonal trip to the French capital? We choose three hotel destinations where style and comfort are guaranteed

Published: 13 March 2005

InterContinental Le Grand
The location
Right next to the Opera House at the top of the Avenue de l'Opéra, one of Paris's grand boulevards, which leads down to the Louvre and the Seine. The InterContinental Le Grand, built in 1862, in the era of Napoleon III, re-opened in 2003 after an 18-month refurbishment designed to place it firmly at the top of the list of Paris's smart hotels. The smell of varnish still lingers on the newly polished doors and banisters while the lobby is full of huge vases of fresh lilies. You enter up a flight of stairs through doors opened by staff in top hats and tails before checking in at the spacious reception. The lobby boasts bentwood furniture and Oriental screens and leads to the cafe and bar, which feature a glass ceiling and a huge chandelier. It's worth walking up and down the grand staircase to examine the classic paintings and soak up the ambience. The internal decor draws heavily on the neighbouring Opera House and pictures of stars of the opera and ballet, including Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, hang on the walls.
Apart from its wonderful location and the fact that some rooms overlook the Opera House? Well, there's also the majestic Cafe de la Paix. The huge chandeliers, glass canopy and delicate sky-blue murals on the ceiling make this the grandest of Parisian grand cafes. Famous names who have supped here include the future Edward VII, Emile Zola and Oscar Wilde, who, so the hotel literature reports, dreamed he saw an angel in the conservatory terrace.
The comfort factor
The hotel has 482 rooms. Mine focused on a king-sized bed so high it's a wonder they don't provide a stepladder to help you climb into it. Above the bed hung a beautiful silk screen while the windows were framed with velvet curtains and regency armchairs. The bar and lobby have huge, comfy sofas and are surrounded by lush palms and foliage.
The bathroom
Sleek lines with separate shower and bath. Soaps and lotions from Audley's of London.
The food and drink
The Brasserie de la Paix offers outstanding food and service in one of the city's loveliest settings. It really is worth treating yourself here. Starters include Shetland Islands smoked salmon with blinis and fresh cream, while among the main courses on offer is grilled turbot with caramelised onions. The prices are bearable, given the standard and location, with dishes starting at around €40 (£29). Drinks are expensive: beer checks in at €8 (£6) and a late-night Viennese hot chocolate at €7 (£5).
The people
A good mix, from international executives, to small, affluent, Japanese tour groups and the odd Indian film star. For everyone else, it's a place to come for that special anniversary celebration.
The area
The Opera House across the road opens its doors for visits and tours. A walk to the Louvre and the Tuileries takes only a leisurely 15 minutes.
The access
There are ramps and elevators for every staircase and ten rooms have been designed for disabled travellers so far, with more under renovation, though they provide wider baths rather than special showers.
The damage
Walk-in rates start at a finger-burning €740 (£542), but the hotel is currently offering rates on its website from €370 (£271) per night. Presidential suites are strictly for those readers who picked the right numbers in last night's lottery: the price is €3,270 (£2,400) per night.
The address
InterContinental le Grand, 2 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris (00 33 1 40 07 32 32;
Mark Rowe

La Tremoille
The location
Tucked behind the Champs Élysées, off the Avenue George V, in the upmarket 8th arrondissement. Do you like your Parisian grandeur to have a contemporary edge? This 19th-century cornerhouse offers exactly that, following an extensive refurbishment by its owner, The Scotsman Hotel Group. Careful attention has been paid to its Haussmann-style façade and to preserving period details inside. Yet the furnishings and decor are thoroughly 21st century, using a fashionable palette of muted colours - browns purples, greys and white - with tactile textiles such as mohair, fake fur and silk.
A cool, intimate retreat in the right part of town. In the Sixties, the hotel was on the jazz scene and film stars such as Tony Curtis and Marlene Dietrich called it a home from home. Today it doesn't feel like a party house, though Hollywood greats, including Richard Gere and Johnny Depp, still check in.
The comfort factor
There are 93 rooms and suites, with satellite TV, DVD and internet access. A clever touch: each room has a hatch that can be opened from outside, so meals can be discreetly delivered.
The bathroom
In sparkling porcelain and marble, ours had a walk-in shower, bath and separate loo, and was supplied with Molton Brown toiletries.
The food and drink
The hotel employed the talents of Sir Terence Conran to design the restaurant and bar, Senso, which serves a French gastronomic menu.
The people
Well-off Europeans - and those stellar guests.
The area
The Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower are within walking distance. The hotel has a small gym, sauna and offers beauty treatments.
The access
Children welcome. Some pets too. Full disabled access.
The damage
From €410 (£286) per room per night.
The address
La Trémoille, 14 rue de La Trémoille, 75008 Paris, France (00 33 1 56 52 14 00;
Kate Simon
Kate Simon travelled to Paris with Eurostar (08705 186 186;, which offers return fares from £59.

Hotel Westminster
The location
In the immensely posh Rue de la Paix - Paris's equivalent to London's Bond Street - which runs north from the Place Vendôme to the Opéra. A short stroll, in other words, from the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre.
The hotel
Traditional, with dim lighting and hushed, discreet service. It isn't in the absolute top tier of Parisian hotels, but it falls not far short. In many respects, it still resembles the 19th-century hotel that it once was, with antique carpets, giant flower displays and marble columns in the hall, and flowery bedspreads, heavy drapes, chandeliers and chaise-longues in the bedrooms. Other decorative features in my room included block-print wallpaper, gilt picture frames and period etchings, not to mention a leather-topped desk and an antique bronze clock. The whole place has been refurbished and redecorated to a high standard under Pierre-Yves Rochon.
A more affordable and classy substitute for the Ritz (which is just round the corner).
The comfort factor
A few guests have complained about bedrooms being too small, but otherwise, it's comfortable. Despite the hotel's central location, most of the 100 rooms are almost soundproof. And rooms offer all the facilities of a top-notch hotel, including high-speed internet connections and British newspapers delivered to your door with breakfast.
The bathroom
Lots of marble, and plenty of natural light, with windows overlooking the central garden-courtyard. The beauty products are expensive brands such as Bulgari and Carven. Some of the bathrooms have old-fashioned dressing tables.
The food and drink
This is one of the hotel's best features. Le Celadon restaurant (00 33 1 47 03 40 42), with its damask wall hangings and pale green Chinese porcelain (and decent-sized tables), has a well-deserved Michelin star and is a place to enjoy the meal of a lifetime. A three-course meal from the fabulously creative à la carte menu is unlikely to cost less than £100 per head, including wine, though there is also a superb set menu (called Plaisirs Gourmands) with an oriental aspect for about £45. At the weekend, the restaurant changes its style and its menu, transforming itself into Le Petit Celadon, which is more relaxed and slightly cheaper and simpler; a three-course menu of about £33 is offered, including wine and coffee. Service (in English and French) is flawless.
The people
The Dukes of Westminster, among others, have had a tradition of staying here since the end of the 19th century (the hotel had named itself the Westminster as long ago as 1831, during one of Paris's more Anglophile periods). Other celebrity guests have included footballer Eric Cantona, rock star Prince, and actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. More ordinary clientele include British merchant bankers and anybody who prefers discretion to publicity.
The area
You can smoke a cigar and browse an antique book in the Duke's Bar, while admiring its huge gothic fireplace, giant leather furniture and wallpaper resembling green baize. Or, if you don't like the idea of an English gentleman's club in Paris, go up to the Westminster Fitness Club, a workout centre under a glass-ceiling, with a view over the rooftops of the city.
The access
Pets and children welcome. Restricted access for wheelchair users.
The damage
Through Great Hotels of the World, small classic double rooms are currently available for about £100. Prices for suites cost up to about £600.
Call Great Hotels of the World on 0800 0324254;
The address
Hotel Westminster, 13 Rue de la Paix, 75002 Paris (00 33 1 42 615746;
Jeremy Atiyah

Sunday, March 6, 2005

Tilting at windmills in the land of the high plains drifter

Tilting at windmills in the land of the high plains drifter

The 400th anniversary of 'Don Quixote' is cause for celebration. Jeremy Atiyah tours La Mancha to see if the setting for Cervantes's classic is the best venue

Published: 06 March 2005

No wonder the tourist board of La Mancha sniffs an opportunity: this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication, by Miguel de Cervantes, of the first part of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Few books have been so successful in raising the profile of an otherwise unknown land. The spindly figure of Don Quixote on his ageing hack, Rocinante, accompanied by the portly Sancho Panza on the back of a donkey, is an image that has penetrated the consciousness of the whole world. And the indelible backdrop to that image is the flat, dusty plain of La Mancha, distinguished only by its windmills.

Many of us, over the centuries, have laughed (or cried) at the absurdities engendered by Cervantes's plot-line. Others have gone further. Don Quixote, with his delusions of grandeur, has been seen as the embodiment of all human folly; his story has been described as an allegory, setting forth the eternal struggle between the ideal and the real; between the spirit of poetry and the spirit of prose. The Romantics went so far as to see Don Quixote as a tragic, heroic figure, a man of virtue who yet suffered the greatest defeat of all, public ridicule.

But all agree: Don Quixote's spirit is a triumph of fantasy over fact. And the latest campaign to lure tourists to dreary La Mancha is commendably in keeping with that spirit. Why, after all, did Cervantes choose it, over all the regions of Spain, to be Don Quixote's homeland?

One of the keynotes to the book is struck when the stolid, humourless Sancho informs his "knight" that he has only a donkey on which to ride. "About the donkey," we read, "Don Quixote hesitated a little, trying to call to mind any knight-errant taking with him an esquire mounted on donkey-back; but no instance occurred to his memory."

As it is with his squire's donkey, so it is with the chosen location for Don Quixote's planned heroics. To anyone who knows Spain well, the mere style and title of "Don Quixote of La Mancha" gives the key to the author's meaning. Quite simply, La Mancha is the last place in Spain that would evoke ideas of chivalry, adventure, glamour or romance. It is, in short, outstanding only for its dullness.

Consider the alternative locations where Cervantes might have placed his hero. The author himself had been born in the opulent and sophisticated city of Alcala de Henares, northeast of Madrid. He had spent his youth abroad, around the Mediterranean, fighting the Turks (this included a four-year spell as a prisoner in Algiers). During his later life in Spain, he lived in grand cities, including Seville and Valladolid.

Spain offered desolation in all directions. But it was never dreary. To the north sparkled Leon, Burgos and all the great cities of Castille's Golden Age. Around Madrid, the cities of Salamanca, Toledo, Aranjuez, Segovia were splendid in culture and relics of the past. To the west and south lay the melancholy but impressive solitudes of Estremadura and Andalucia. Any of these lands might have been ideal locations for a genuine romance.

But a satirical romance? Only La Mancha would do. It offered no redeeming feature whatsoever. It lacked any hint of nobility or dignity; it was an in-between land; a land that had once been - as it should have remained - a border region between the Christian heartland of Castilla, and the Moorish land of Andalucia (the Arabs had called it al-Manshah, "dry land" or "wilderness").

In Cervantes's day, the few towns and villages that broke its monotony were uncultured and populated by bumpkins. In short, La Mancha, as the knight's country and scene of his chivalries, was wholly consistent with the pasteboard helmet, the tired old hack, the squire on a donkey, and all the other incongruities between Don Quixote's imaginary world, and the world in which he actually lived.

The unfortunate - or fortunate - fact in the 21st century is that La Mancha remains almost exactly as Cervantes described it 400 years ago. It is a severe land, freezing cold in winter, broiling hot in summer. It is devoted to agriculture, inasmuch as unfavourable environmental conditions allow. Villages such as El Toboso (home of the knight's fair-maiden-cum-country-wench, Dulcinea) and Argamasilla de Alba (claimed as Don Quixote's own village), are prim, adequate little places, distinguished only through their supposed connection with Quixotic episodes.

Only a fortuitous drawing of Spain's political boundaries has succeeded in lending any glamour to La Mancha. In 1979, the Autonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha was created, fusing the flat plains of La Mancha with the more exciting region to the north, centred on the stunning Unesco world-heritage cities of Toledo and Cuenca.

But if truth be told, neither of these is remotely characteristic of La Mancha. Far more characteristic are Albacete and Ciudad Real, the region's biggest cities, legendary throughout Spain for their tedium (though the latter at least boasts a Museum of Don Quixote, inaugurated in 2002, designed for children and scholars). As for rustic Valdepeñas, down the road, it offers bodegas and wine-tasting. Its wines are best known for being regrettable.

None of this is to say that La Mancha has given up hope. Don Quixote is galloping to the rescue, lance at the ready! Over these plains, for the benefit of tourists, the regional authorities have been busy developing the so-called Don Quixote Route, an ambitious tangle of criss-crossing routes and paths, 2,500 kilometres in length, connecting sundry towns from Toledo to Albacete.

They claim that their land has its own poetry. Its grass grows green for a month in spring (they boast), before scorching to a golden stubble. Tourist brochures describe its monotonous roads as lined with trees; they speak of a village, here and there, tanned by the sun, casting the silhouette of its belfry upon an azure sky; they speak of the occasional hermitage on some isolated crag, exalting in the meagre shade of a cypress; they mention a tower crumbling in the blood-red light of evening; or parched torrent beds like lizard tracks.
To appreciate all this, we are told, the Don Quixote Route is best journeyed on foot or by bicycle; or even on the back of an old, enfeebled horse. It all sounds so marvellously romantic.

It is a grand illusion, one suspects, of which Don Quixote himself would have been proud.


How to get there
British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Madrid from £69, from Manchester to Madrid from £96 and from Birmingham to Madrid from £99. Renfe, the Spanish National Railways, (00 34 902 24 02 02; offers regular train departures from Madrid to Toledo, Cuenca, Albacete and Ciudad Real taking one to two hours.

Where to stay
Hotel Abad, Real del Arrabal 1, Toledo (00 34 925 283500; is in a former blacksmith's shop dating from 1815. Many of the original features have been retained including the wooden ceilings, wall beams and brickwork. Doubles without breakfast start at €101 (£72).

Further information
The Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077;
Special events are taking place throughout the year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, including exhibitions, opera, readings and food festivals. For more details, go to


Cervantes's Madrid
The 400th anniversary of Don Quixote has put La Mancha on the map, and Cervantes's Madrid connections are also there to be explored. The Plaza Mayor is the meeting point for one of the city's tourist office's regular guided walks "Cervantes and his era". Tours cost €3.10 (£2.20) for adults and €2.50 for children. Alternatively, Carpetaniamadrid, a group of professional historians, offers fascinating literary-themed walks (€7 for adults and €5 for students).

Further information: Madrid Tourism (00 34 914 294951;; Carpetaniamadrid (00 34 915 314018;

The Barcelona of 'Shadow of the Wind'
Carlos Ruiz Zafon's bestseller drips with period atmosphere, evoking the Barcelona's post-civil war streets The Ramblas puts in frequent appearances, as do various hidden-away calles that are little changed to this day. Els Quatre Gats, a neo-Gothic restaurant that plays a key role in the story, still exists. The book reaches its climax in the sea air at Barceloneta. Meanwhile, the city has organised a programme of events to celebrate Barcelona 2005 Books and Reading Year.

Further information: Barcelona Tourism (00 34 932 853834;; Els Quatre Gats (00 34 933024 140;; Barcelona Books and Reading Year (00 34 933161 000; www.anyllibre

From top to bottom with Laurie Lee
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is Laurie Lee's account of the journey he made as a young man through pre-civil war Spain. "I had a knapsack, blanket, a spare shirt and a fiddle, and enough words to ask for a glass of water," he writes. His journey started in Vigo in Galicia and ending in Almuñecar on the Mediterranean coast, via Valladolid, Segovia, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz and Malaga.
Further information: Galicia Tourism (00 34 981 542500;, Andalucia Tourism (00 34 901 200020;

Papa's Parador
No foreign writer had Spain in his blood quite like Ernest Hemingway, with his hymn to bull-fighting that is Death in the Afternoon. If such a spectacle is not to your taste, head for the Parador de Ronda in southern Andalucia. It overlooks El Tajo, the dramatic 120-metre gorge said to have inspired the cliff scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Further information: Parador de Ronda, Plaza de Espana (00 34 952 877500) has doubles without breakfast from €144; Ronda Tourism (00 34 952 187 119;

Robert Graves's Mallorca
The village of Deia, which was home for most of the poet's adult life, is a delightful cluster of honey-coloured buildings perched on a northern hillside above the sea. It's been a favourite haunt of artists and painters for centuries. The elegant La Residencia hotel offers wonderful views, while nearby Valldemossa is famous for its deserted Carthusian Monastery, La Cartuja. It is where Frederic Chopin and George Sand spent the winter of 1838-1839, chronicled in Sand's 1855 Un Hiver Majorque (A winter in Mallorca).
Further information: Hotel La Residencia, Son Canals, Deia (00 34 971 639011; has doubles with breakfast from €252; Mallorca Tourist Office (00 34 971 712216;

Thrill of Seville
Seville's atmospheric Moorish streets and the stunning Giralda form the backdrop for Arturo Perez-Reverte's 1999 thriller The Seville Communion. The story, involving the papal emissary and investigator Father Lorenzo Quart, is played out in the bars, grand residences and churches that dot the city.
Further information: Seville Tourism (00 34 954 221404;

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Just me, the tree gods, and a mosaic full of mermaids

Just me, the tree gods, and a mosaic full of mermaids

Jeremy Atiyah hears echoes of Byzantium in Italy's Land's End - the deserted, beautiful, and mysterious region of Salento

Published: 20 February 2005

The Salento peninsula - the tip of the stiletto heel of Italy - is easy enough to miss. After all, it is a region on the way to nowhere. Everyone heading for Greece has already boarded a ferry at Brindisi, south of which there is only Lecce, where the mainline trains terminate and the motorways begin to fizzle out. Even guidebook writers hardly make it further than this.

The latest flood of tourist arrivals to Puglia, landing on Ryanair flights at Bari or Brindisi, does not seem to be coming here either. Instead, drawn by talk of the "new Tuscany", the masses are beating a path to the trulli-zone in the picturesque Valle D'Itria (prompting one regional newspaper to describe it recently as an "English colony").

Perhaps it is Salento's blessing that it has nothing as obviously quaint as the trullo: it has to make do, instead, with tree-gods, hypnotic dances, echoes of a lost Byzantium and the murmur of waves beating on the edge of the world.

For a six-week period in July and August, the whole region suddenly teems with noisy Italian tourists. For the rest of the year, it is dead quiet. A few rich foreigners live discreetly in their baronial homes, undisturbed by the Ryanair hoards. But let traditional Italophiles be warned: Salento does not look like your dream of Italy. There is no whiff of Tuscany here.

It actually resembles a particularly scuffed part of Greece, or perhaps Africa, with villages of flat-roofed houses, and a beautiful rocky coast where leathery old medallion-men mess around in boats.
This is not to say that it is not lovely. Every village contains its historic centre, displaying the antique gold and pink hues of authentic, Leccese stone. There's usually a baroque palazzo; a castle or two. The only pity is the number of antique houses that have been hastily modernised by locals: the resulting Swiss-chalet style of architecture can be almost funny, until you remember what has been destroyed.
But I'm not complaining. The peninsula is also full of olive trees. The olives of Salento, they boast, once fed the lamps that illuminated the streets of London.

And a random drive through the interior throws up one obscure marvel after another. Here is what happened when I drove south from Lecce the other day. First I stumbled across Galatina, with its fabulous 14th-century frescos in the church of Santa Caterina. Next was Maglie, with its elegant mansions and swankily dressed bourgeoisie. I discovered Poggiardo, where, in the Ristorante la Piazza, I was served a vast and unique antipasti that included lightly battered fennel leaves, ricotta with figs and cranberry, and croquettes with fresh mint. Not until after lunch did I finally hit the coast, at Castro, in time to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains of Albania hovering above the sea like a mirage, with Greece shimmering distantly to the south.

It is this suggestion of the exotic east that is particularly seductive. The Roman world was slow in penetrating these parts, and there are villages in Salento where the Greek language lingers on, dating back certainly to the era of Byzantium, if not to that of classical Greece.

On narrow lanes, between dry-stone walls lined with oleander, amid groves containing trees a thousand years old or more, I get the impression of a region steeped in mysterious religions. Turn off the road anywhere and I find menhirs and dolmens and other relics of the long-lost Messapian culture. But what excites me still more is one magic religion that survives today in Salento - Tarantism.

This bizarre little cult, with its own indigenous symbols and beliefs, has the potential to fill the whole peninsula with stupefied foreign tourists. In summer festivals, you find its music everywhere. Old men by bonfires beat out a frenetic rhythm on tambourines, while women sing, and breathless dancers spin and whirl their way to redemption. Centuries ago, it was believed that a strange sickness, found only in women, and believed to have been caused by the bite of a spider, could be cured by engaging in this ritual, high-speed dance. The people of Salento still swear by its therapeutic properties.

Except that this is winter. It is not the season for dancing. It is time for off-season tours of the regional highlights.

For my own trip, I have elected to bypass the Ionian coast, on the western side of the peninsula. Developments on the shore over there are a little tawdry. The Adriatic is what I want to see, starting with bijou Otranto: a historic town, full of boutique stores and ice-cream vendors, and massively fortified.

As Italy's most easterly city, Otranto haughtily proclaims itself to be in a state of high alert against the "menace" of eastern Europe. On the Capo d'Otranto, a promontory to the south, ancient stone watchtowers gaze out towards Albania.

The land hereabouts is a treeless, rocky maquis, covered in tiny flowers. When the sun's rays are horizontal, it might be the west coast of Scotland. But the towers are relics of a time when the threat was real. In the year 1480, the Ottoman Empire attempted to launch an invasion of Italy at this point. Otranto was captured from the sea, and 800 of its citizens put to death. Mehmed II himself was said to be on his way, determined to use Otranto as a bridgehead for a conquest not only of Italy, but of all Christendom. The Pope in Rome prepared to flee to Avignon. But events stalled. Mehmed died a year later. His forces withdrew from Italy, never to return. In the year 2005, old Pugliese folk, as if caught in an ancient dream, are still wont to shout out in times of stress, "Mamma, le Turchi!"

Otranto's cathedral contains one of the most fabulous gems of mediaeval art in Europe. I am talking of the vast, 900-year-old mosaic floor, as anarchic a collection of characters and motifs as that intensely Christian world could ever have conceived (featuring Alexander the Great, King Arthur, elephants, trees of life, mermaids, and the Queen of Sheba, among others, with inscriptions in Greek, Latin and Arabic).

The coastal road meanders south. My next stop is Santa Cesarea Terme, an old-fashioned spa resort that has seen better days in years gone by, and may well see better days in years to come. Faded mansions, the playthings of 19th-century aristocrats, dominate the front, in particular the famous Villa Sticchi with its Arabesque domes and arches. On a sunny winter's day, I find a few cafés open here; a couple of old hotels are undergoing refurbishment for the coming season.

The gorgeous rocky coast beyond remains unexploited all the way to the southernmost tip of the peninsula. The road is narrow and winding. In summer, Italian holidaymakers will cruise up and down in search of the perfect cove or grotto, accessible by steps cut into the cliffs. But hotels are few and far between. Olive groves still dominate the landward view.

I stop for lunch at Marina di Andrano, where a stout little lady provides a dish of stout little squid. When I ask if I might eat my lunch at the picnic tables across the road, by the blue sea, bathed in warm winter sunshine, she cries, "Why not?", and scuttles across the road with my dishes in her hands.

Finally I reach Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy's Land's End. In ancient times, the Messapians and the Greeks had sanctuaries here, and a Roman temple to Minerva attracted pilgrims by the thousand. Today it is still a pilgrimage centre - a sanctuary for the Madonna of Finibus Terrae has been built on the site of Minerva's old temple. The current Pope has visited it. And centuries ago, they say, St Francis of Assisi came, as did St Peter himself.

I feel sure that all of them enjoyed the views, the food, and the spirit of Salento.


How to get there
Ryanair (0871-246 0000; offers returns from Stansted to Brindisi from around £40. Hertz (08708-44 88 44; offers one week's car rental from Brindisi airport from around €218 (£150). A charming private railway, Ferrovie del Sud Est (00 39 080 546 2111;, does a circuit of the region from Lecce.

Where to stay
Long Travel (01694 722367; offers seven nights' b&b at Hotel Patria Palace in Lecce from £571 per person, based on two sharing, including car hire but not flights. It also offers stays at the family-run Hotel Al Duemila, about 20 km from Gallipoli, from £299 per person per week, a price which includes return airport transfers and half-board based on two sharing but excludes flights.

Perhaps the best place to stay in Salento is the eight-bedroom 15th century covent Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, Marittima di Diso (07736 362328), owned by Lord and Lady McAlpine. Doubles start at €250 (£178) per night on a half-board basis. The house is open from May until the end of October.

Further information
Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254;

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Shangri-La: the dream that became a reality

Shangri-La: the dream that became a reality

In the heart of 'olde' China, locals are busy giving everything a facelift. Have they managed to create the best of both worlds? Jeremy Atiyah finds out

Published: 30 January 2005

You might think of Yunnan Province as the Dordogne of China, with its pleasant weather, rustic landscapes, picturesquely dressed minority peoples, and quaint old towns. But in consequence, the tourists are now coming. And boy, are they coming - affluent Chinese urbanites by the thousand. Some come on package tours, others come independently. Huge crowds of camera-clicking tourists zoom in on every spot of cultural or natural interest. The "old" quarter of every town is a maelstrom of boutique shops and open-air restaurants.

China has been only too happy to promote internal tourism. Domestic air travel has increased exponentially and already resembles that of Europe or the US. On the ground, comfortable buses with on-board hostesses and computer- reserved seats cruise the highways. Local tourists reserve hotel rooms on their Wap-enabled mobiles, or leaf through locally published guidebooks, receiving confirmations of their bookings as text messages.

And here I am trailing along behind, looking for ancient Eastern wisdom, though I am glad to note the analogy with the Dordogne breaking down when I consult a map. Yunnan is actually larger than Germany, and stretches from the tropical jungles of Burma, Laos and Vietnam to the wintry fringes of Tibet.

So far I've been doing the regular tourist stuff, beside everyone else. I've been in the regional capital, Kunming, which already resembles Chicago. I've been to scenic, sunny Dali, where western backpackers have been coming for years to drink cappuccino and eat spaghetti.

Mainly, though, I've been in Lijiang, which has become one of the great tourism phenomena of the world. If you wanted to be negative about Lijiang, you'd complain that it was a faked-up Disneyfied version of Olde China. But the town is also immaculately clean and immensely picturesque. Free of cars, it has cobbled streets, rushing waterways, ancient stone bridges, outdoor cafés and tiled rooftops, all overlooked by snowy mountains and sunny skies. In short, it resembles some perfectly quaint Tuscan hill town, complete with thousands of tourists everywhere.

I stayed in a rickety old wooden house built round a pair of courtyards packed with potted plants and ancient bonsai trees. It was someone's private home; one of many such inns where an old man and his wife will take care of your every comfort. The only sound I could hear from my room was that of cheeping birds. For all this I paid about £4 a night. Sophisticated home-cooked dinners cost 70p extra, with large bottles of excellent cold beer at 20p.

It is tempting to stay in Lijiang for ever, but I still have a final frontier to probe. The end of Yunnan is where I'm heading, by bus: to a small town, north of Lijiang, 12,000 feet up in the Tibetan borderlands. When I disembark here, several hours later, a serious frost is in the air. This feels like Tibet all right. The local people are ruddy-cheeked Tibetans. Distant Tibetan mountains ring the valley. Tibetan yaks amble on street corners. A Tibetan monastery commands the heights on the edge of town.

It doesn't look like a town where I'd find ancient wisdom, let alone an international hotel, but strangely enough, I'm booked into one. The Banyan Tree chain, owner of properties in countries not known for their frosts, including Malaysia and Thailand, has decided to test the waters in chilly upland China. So here I now am, in a room decked out with silk cushions, low beds, bespoke dark-wood furniture and tent-like fabrics hanging from the ceiling. The air is cold but the duvets are enormous, the electric blanket is toasty, the food is delicious, the service is charming, and the restaurant has a crackling fireplace.

But where exactly is this? A few years ago the local authorities had the big idea of renaming it to raise its profile as a tourist destination. If there is one thing I wouldn't have done, it would have been to give this town a new name. It already had two - Diqing (the original Chinese name) and Zhongdian (the Chinese rendering of the Tibetan name, Gyalthang). And now it has a third: Xianggelila (Chinese for Shangri-La). Which brings me to the British writer James Hilton.

In his 1930s novel, Lost Horizon, Hilton depicted Shangri-La as a valley hidden in the wilds of Tibet, where time moved so slowly that people could survive for centuries, steeping themselves in high art and culture. Hilton seems to have got the name from "Shambhala", a mythical haven for the enlightened, referred to in ancient Tibetan texts. His idea was that Shangri-La would eventually be called upon to re-seed human civilisation, after the rest of the world had destroyed itself by war.

The local authorities of the town to which I must now refer as "Shangri-La" may have identified their valley as the source of Hilton's story, but I fear that the mountains are too distant, and that the land is too brown and dusty. The other implausibility about this latter-day Shangri-La is that it is far too accessible. Look at me. I've just cruised up here on public transport. Daily flights land here. A huge economic boom, moreover, has caused a new Chinese town to spring up on its outskirts, packed with fashion shops, hairdressing salons, music stores, mobile-phone emporia and internet cafés. Three or four large hotels, oddly reminiscent of Las Vegas, have also appeared. Everyone you speak to admits that the place is no longer the Shangri-La that it once was.

Might not some mistake have been made in promoting a place as a peaceful haven, when the desired consequence of that promotion would be to lure large, noisy crowds to descend upon it?
Few of the locals seem to think so. Right now, the "old town" is undergoing a huge facelift. Everywhere I hear the sounds of hammering and chiselling from the interiors of fabulous Tibetan houses - stout structures with massive walls of stone and ornamental carved wood, fronted by mighty columns to support the upper floors. Work started a few months ago; the town should be ready, as good as new, in time for this summer's tourist invasion.

Not that I'm wholly disheartened. What impresses me is how affluent people from Guangzhou and Shanghai have come to Shangri-La to renovate these old houses and to convert them into mellow little cafés. They represent the vanguard of China's new bohemia. Meanwhile, the local Tibetans, lucky them, get to live in modern apartment blocks on the edge of the new town.

The more time I spend here, the more fascinated I become. Tibet is the borderland between the old world and the new. It is also a borderland between China and India. My guide is Tibetan, but grew up in India, before returning with his family to China a couple of years ago. He speaks good English, Hindi, Tibetan and Chinese. He and his friends have introduced cricket to Shangri-La. His boss, born to Bengali parents in Uganda, moved to the Sudan, studied in India, worked in Nepal and finally drifted here. These are the kinds of people you find on the fringes of modern Tibet. And what will happen to Shangri-La when Lijiang's tourist hordes arrive? Perhaps it will keep moving, until the tourists can penetrate no further.

I am still restless, in search of Yunnan's uttermost end. I hire a car and driver for two days, to make the trip north to Deqen. The driver brings his girlfriend, who, apart from visiting Lijiang (125 miles away), has never been anywhere in her life. She is car-sick within an hour of our departure.

The road from Shangri-La to Deqen is one of those incredible scenic mountain routes that you cannot imagine anyone bothering to build. It zigzags up and down near-vertical slopes surrounded by massive snowy mountains. We have lunch by the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in a sunny valley surrounded by orange trees; two hours later we are crossing a 13,000ft pass in bitter cold. The villages here are all Tibetan - full of grazing cows, nibbling goats, rootling pigs, pecking chickens, and magnificent peasant cottages of whitewashed walls, gorgeous painted window frames, and carved eaves. Houses like these in Tuscany, I reflect, would sell for millions.

We finally reach a cold little road on a cliff-top directly overlooking the Meilixue Shan mountain range, where 13 peaks soar to 20,000ft or more. It's de rigueur among China's new tourists to stay here and watch the sun rise over the mountains. In the evening, I find a trendy café playing western pop music and serving curry. My driver and his girl read old copies of the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan and listen to the music and feel an unfamiliar yearning for the rest of the world. In my hotel, the temperature in the room falls to freezing in the morning, and I am forced to wash in water from a thermos flask. But it is all worth it. Before dawn, I get up to watch the mighty peaks turn pink. Then we drive down into the deep valley of the upper Mekong, along a road with a 2,000ft vertical drop to the river. On the other side of the valley, it will be my task to walk up to the glacier of Mount Kagebo, which is Tibet's second holiest mountain.

My driver and his girl stay down below while I set off on the trek. The proper Tibetan pilgrimage is to walk around the mountain, spending 20 or 30 days over it. An Indian woman I met in Shangri-La told me how she had done this, walking alone through snowy wildernesses, falling ill, only to be rescued by passing lamas, who took her to a remote and unknown monastery to recover her health, leading prayers for her day and night. Compared with that, this touristic pilgrimage - up to the glacier and back - feels rather trivial. But the Chinese tourists help me to restore my pride. They all ride mules, while I walk. In fact, I only just make it, unaccustomed as I am to the altitude (nearly 12,000 feet). Here is the glacier, groaning and creaking in a colossal swathe down the mountain.

My big spiritual moment occurs on the return journey, when I fall in with a Tibetan family. Here is an old gentleman and his wife, and their grown-up children, splendidly dressed and smelling of yak-butter. They scurry like mountain goats down through the forest. Somehow, they encourage me to follow them along invisible short cuts. They keep offering to carry my bag. They seem to be asking me for money, but when I offer it, they look at me as if I am mad - all they want is a picture of the Dalai Lama. Anyway, we keep going, and as we go, I fall into a kind of rhythm, my head empties and my spirits rise and I tell myself I am half-way to finding Buddhism.

Jeremy Atiyah is a co-author of 'The Rough Guide to China' (£17.99).


How to get there
Jeremy Atiyah flew from London to Shanghai as a guest of Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; which offers return fares from about £390. He flew from Shanghai to Kunming return as a guest of Opodo (0870 241 7051;, which can book flights and accommodation across China. It offers return flights from London to Kunming from £252 return with Shanghai Airlines.

Where to stay
He stayed in Shangri-la as a guest of the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel (00 86 887 822 3646; The hotel reopens on 28 February 2005. Double rooms cost US$135 (£70) per night with breakfast and a two-hour massage. Minimum stay is two nights. Contact Banyan for reservations (01494 675636)

Further information
Contact the China National Tourist Office (0900 160 0188; Tourist visas, which are valid for three months, are required. Contact Chinese Embassy Visa Information (0900 188 0808).