Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, ENO

Carmen

It’s always a treat to hear the lilting melodies of Bizet’s Carmen. It was the first opera I performed in as a young child, running through the audience at the Royal Albert Hall to reach the great stage in the round. It is in fact the two sections with the kids chorus that provide the most drama and excitement in Carmen, and I have such fond memories of singing these great verses.

The ENO is currently reviving (for a second time) Calixto Bieito’s production, which was first performed here in 2012. The production is set in Franco’s Spain, a stark contrast to the 18th century setting it was written in. I found it somehow less believable to watch the leading characters navigate the dramatic storyline in this contemporary setting. Alfons Flores’ staging is simple, a few motifs heavily feature – the towering bull silhouette in the final act is perhaps the most memorable. Elsewhere the minimal props add colour and personality to the 1970s look – vintage cars and a battered phonebox are frequently used by the performers on stage.

The vocal performances were varied, I was particularly impressed by Sean Panikkar’s jealous and desperate rendition of Don José. Justina Gringyté showcases a self-assured Carmen, parading confidently across the stage, her vocals were powerful and pleasant to listen to, but I couldn’t fall in love with her, unlike the enamoured soldier’s on stage.

As always the ENO orchestra were on top form, led superbly by Valentina Peleggi. They ensured the favourite tunes soared while letting the singers shine elsewhere with subtle, sensitive playing.

Though this production feels well rehearsed and well suited to the ENO stage, I couldn’t help but miss the more traditional staging, which I feel lets you engage more fully with this French operatic masterpiece.

I was a guest of the ENO. Carmen continues until 27 February 2020, book tickets here.

Things to do in Tbilisi, Georgia

As a food and drink fanatic Georgia is a country that has been on my list to try for a while. Located in the intersection between Europe and Asia, it has an interesting history and East meets West cuisine. It is the birthplace of wine and the ancient wine-growing region Kakheti is particularly well known. The capital city of Tbilisi is centred around a sprawling old town of cobbled streets and diverse architecture.

The country is becoming more accessible with three flights a week from London Gatwick, and plenty of hip new hotels and restaurants to satisfy seasoned globetrotters.

Tbilisi

To Stay

Rooms Hotel – Found in the charming Vera neighbourhood, Rooms Hotel was the first design-led accommodation to open in the city and has become a hotspot ever since. Occupying a characterful former publishing house, rooms are chic and the common areas are vibrant and colourful.

Tbilisi

To Eat 

Shavi Lomi – Many credit Georgian chef Meriko Gubeladze as the leader of the Tbilisi food movement. She opened her fusion restaurant Shavi Lomi in 2011, an atmospheric eatery championing the country’s cuisine. Start with the famous Tushetian guda board (a meze selection) and follow with beef stew with pomegranate sauce.

Lily Vanilli – The Georgian outpost of the famous Columbia Road bakery in London is a pretty little cafe serving delicate homemade cakes and pastries and Allpress coffee.

Lolita – This al fresco brunch spot is conveniently opposite the Rooms Hotel and is always busy with hotel guests and locals alike. The lively venue serves hearty brunch dishes, juices and coffee, and in the evening feast on pizza and cocktails.

Keto & Kote – It’s not easy to find this transformed Georgian house, but once you do you’ll be welcomed in to the authentic, atmospheric dining room. I highly recommend trying the traditional meat dumplings from the menu.

Culinarium Khasheria- After a refreshing trip to the nearby city baths, this comforting and casual restaurant is the perfect pick-me-up. The restaurant is named after the Georgian version of tripe soup, which is said to dispel a hangover. Don’t worry there are lots of other dishes to choose from on the menu!

Salobie Bia – A wonderfully local eatery, where you can sample Western Georgian cuisine. The food is cheap and flavoursome and the dining room has a friendly feel. Opt for Georgian Lobio (a red bean stew) and enjoy with a glass of Georgian wine.

Tbilisi

To Drink

Stamba Chocolaterie & Roastery  – If you are after a high quality sweet treat visit the chocolaterie inside the super stylish Stamba Hotel for handmade artisan chocolates and delicious coffee roasted on site.

Milk coffee shop – Located at the very on-trend Fabrika Hostel, this beautiful little space is a lovely place to meet with a friend, or sit on the terrace and work in the sun. The coffee is made on a shiny La Marzocco machine and is smooth and rich in taste.

Skola- This coffee shop opened in 2017, hoping to bring a higher quality of Coffee to Tbilisi. They serve great speciality roasters from Camera Obscura and the space is also used for talks, exhibitions and workshops.

G. vino wine bar – Georgia is known for its wonderful natural wines and G. vino is one of the top places to try them. Sit in the homely bar and let the knowledgeable staff guide you through the list of very reasonable and sometimes unusual wines.

Coffee LAB – This expert coffee shop is a not located in the centre of town, but is worth the short taxi ride. The long menu offers all kinds and serves of coffee, from drip to siphon, espresso and more. The dark minimalist cafe lets the coffee take centre stage.

41 art of drinks – A relatively new cocktail bar on the scene in Tbilisi. Hidden away, this tiny underground bar is by bartender Roman Milostivy who serves up imaginative cocktails, setting the standard for cocktail making throughout the city.

Tbilisi

To Shop

More is Love – The More is Love store launched in 2013 . The small but stylish shop showcases young and talented designers with an emphasis on Georgian brands.

Chaos – Found upstairs at the Stamba Hotel, this stark white shop presents bold and colourful clothing from local brands and recognised international fashion houses.

Ieri- ‘Ieri’ translates to look, appearance, image, outfit, and attitude. This concept shop is in the heart of the wine district, with fashion buyer Anka Tsitsishvili selecting the finest garments from all Georgian designers. They also often show art exhibitions in the space.

They Said Books – A cool bookstore and cafe with carefully curated shelves of niche magazines, novels and other inspiring books. Pick your favourite to buy and head up to the blue and white tiled cafe for a coffee and cake.

Tbilisi

To Do

Gulo thermal spa – The Gulo thermal spa has been completely refurbished, with impressive marble interiors. It is a great place to reap the benefits of sulphur bathing from the natural springs. Soak in the water before having a scrub down… you’ll leave feeling fresher than ever.

Georgian Museum of Fine Arts – This private art museum is found on Rustaveli Avenue, and is the only building built in Tbilisi with the purpose of showing art. The museum opened at the end of 2018 and houses over 3500 artworks, all created within the last 70 years by Georgian artists.

Tbilisi

To Escape

Kazbegi – I highly recommend escaping the city for a day or two in Kazbegi. Just a few hours drive from Tbilisi this mountainous area is staggeringly beautiful. At 5,047 metres above sea level, Kazbegi Mountain is the third highest in Georgia, and is surrounded by intriguing myths and religious tradition. Stay at the lovely Rooms hotel and visit the old capital of Kutaisi, I loved seeing the medieval Gelati Monastery on the outskirts.

Things to do in Seoul, South Korea

I was looking for a new year travel destination to satisfy to thirst for something different. The capital city of South Korea is known for its modern skyscrapers and high-tech businesses but scratch the surface and you’ll discover everything from historic temples to energetic street food markets. In five short days we tried an array of culinary treats, walked through amazing neighbourhoods and soaked up all the dynamic culture on offer.

Seoul

To Stay

Hotel Cappuccino – Located in the up and coming Gangnam district, Hotel Cappuccino is hip hotel with a small price tag. Just £65 a night for a very comfortable double room with all the amenities you’ll need during a city break.

Seoul

To Eat

Jungsik – We had such a special lunch at Jungsik. This sophisticated 2 Michelin star restaurant is one of the finest places to eat in town. Korean-born chef Jung Sik Yim shows his talent and respect for Korean flavours in his dishes at Jungsik, he also runs a successful eatery in New York. also It costs around £50 for a set 4 course lunch. Particularly memorable from our meal was the Gimbap rice rolls and an innovative dessert based on stone sculpture on Jeju island.

Hyodo chicken – If you ask any of the top Seoul chefs where they recommend for Korean Fried Chicken, most will say Hyodo. This small restaurant is run by chef Kim San, who gained experience working in Michelin star kitchens. The short menu offers a just a few options, order the signature fried chicken topped with dried tiny anchovies and charred green peppers.

Tuk Tuk Noodle Thai – If you are in the mood for Thai I recommend trying out Tuk Tuk. A lively restaurant with perhaps the most authentic Thai menu in town.

Tartine Bakery – The San Francisco export is popular as ever. Visit the expansive brushed concrete space for the classic Tartine bread and decadent pastries.

Cafe Onion – This was my favourite brunch venue in Seoul. Head to the original branch in the industrial Seongsu area and try the towering pandoro and delicate strawberry tart. The venue is naturally distressed, a converted metal factory that has so much charm.

Parc – Founded in 2013 in the heart of the Hannam area Parc is the best place to go in Seoul for home-cooked style food. The restaurant serves traditional food passed down through the generations by the owner Pak Mogua’s mother, Heo Junghee. We stopped by for a light lunch of broth, rice with BBQ pork and kimchee.

Daedo Sikdang – Most tourists head to Born & Bred for Korean BBQ, but for the real deal I recommend Daedo Sikdang… the experience is completely authentic and the Korean wagyu beef (grilled at your table) is melt in the mouth delicious.

Gwangjang market – This market is a must for any visit to Seoul. Gwangjang is one of the largest and oldest traditional markets in South Korea and was featured on Netflix’s Street Food series. Hunt down Yoonsun Cho for wonderfully fresh knifecut noodles at Gohyang Kalguksu stall and then sample mung bean pancakes by Geumsoon Park at Pakgane.

Zero Complex – The dining room of Zero Complex is understated and simple. There is lots of space between tables and plenty of light from the huge windows. Chef Lee Chung-hu’s “philosophy is that balance and harmony hold the key to great food”. This 1 Michelin star eatery favours French cooking techniques showcasing the seasonal Korean ingredients.

Other restaurants I heard were great in Seoul – Mingles, TocToc and Mosu. 

Seoul

To Drink

Charles H at four seasons – If you only have one cocktail in Seoul have it at Charles H. The Four Season’s prohibition style bar is hidden away on the lower ground floor. It is thrilling to sit at the bar and quiz the expert barmen about the menu of delectable cocktails. A tequila cocktail called Ms. Frida is their bestseller but we preferred the whisky based drinks.

Manufact Coffee Roasting – When Queenmamamarket shut so did the flagship Manufact Coffee. Luckily a new cafe has opened serving the same great coffee, cold brew and coffee beans.

Anthracite Coffee – Anthracite Coffee Roasters has six locations in Seoul. I recommend visiting the very impressive Itaewon cafe, a renovated shoe factory with loads of character. The three storey building has distressed concrete walls and chic furniture throughout. Order a coffee and sit down to admire your surroundings.

Fritz coffee – Go to the Wonseo branch of Fritz, where the cafe is at home within a traditional Hanok house. The pastries are absolutely divine, buttery and indulgent, and the speciality coffee is among the best in Seoul. I was also tempted by the very appealing items in the shop at Fritz, including some beautifully branded granola which I bought a pot of.

Southside Parlor – For a fun night out head to Southside Parlor, a prohibition style bar in Yongsan-gu. Friends (and native Texans) Phil, Robbie and Johnny opened Southside in 2013 and there fun cocktail den has become a staple for those living in the neighbourhood. Try the Dr Pepper old fashioned and order some chicken tacos from the menu of Mexican classics.

Seoul Coffee – Some visit Seoul Coffee for the drinks but most head here to try the perfect cubes of ice cream. The cafe is concealed among the busy Ikseon-dong alleyways, so can be a struggle to find… I recommend trying the affogato, ticking off both the coffee and ice-cream in one go!

Seoul

To Shop

Fermata – The Fermata showroom is hidden away in the Hannam-Dong area. Owned by designer Choi Hye-jin and patternmaker Yoon Kwon-jin, the shop is serene and arranged in an orderly way. The clothes are oversized and using lovely natural fabrics.

Millimetre Milligram (MMMG) – A stationery emporium for paper and pen addicts! This brand has several branches throughout Seoul, all selling the functional and stylish MMMG books, bags, pens, pencils and general desk paraphernalia. I spent hours in the biggest store in Hannam admiring every item.

Boon the shop – A big shiny concept store, selling bold fashion pieces from recognised international brands alongside interesting lifestyle products. I loved discovering the South Korea guidebooks by Magazine B, including a very useful guide to Seoul in English.

Object – Beautifully displayed stationery, books, artwork and artist’s accessories. Located in the university area of Hongdae this shop is often full of eager students shopping.

Tamburins – This Korean beauty brand ticks the product and packaging boxes. The flagship store is spacious and pretty with striking posters and plants in every corner. Chat through the products with the helpful staff or, if in doubt, buy one of their iconic Nude H handcreams. I noticed everyone in Seoul seemed to have flawless skin, perhaps down to effective and innovative beauty formulas… sign me up!

Gentle Monster – Gentle Monster is the only brand I have noticed outside of South Korea, after the sculptural shop opened in London a few years ago. This luxury eyewear brand designs striking eyewear that makes a statement. Visiting their main shop in Seoul is worth it just for the visual experience.

Sikijang- A small warehouse shop stacked high with locally made ceramics and cutlery. Heaven for kitchenware lovers.

Seoul

To Do

Sulwhasoo spa – Sulwhasoo is one of the best known luxury beauty brands in South Korea. It was founded in 1966 and the flagship is a stunning building in Gangnam, perfect for a range of revitalising and restorative treatments. You can also buy the famous ‘Abc Ginseng Cream’ here.

Leeum Museum of Art – Leeum Museum in Yongsan-gu is split into three buildings, each showcasing different art and exhibitions. There is so much to see here from historic stoneware and traditional Korean art to cutting-edge contemporary works and installations from local and international artists.

Gyeongbokgung – Gyeongbokgung is the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. The palace was built in 1395, and is considered the most beautiful of Seoul’s five palaces. Visit for the dramatic changing of the guard at Gwanghwamun gate.

Bukchon Hanok village – A busy tourist location for good reason. Bukchon is the largest area of traditional Korean homes in Seoul, with around 900 hanok. Admire the wonderful houses, with the modern metropolis in the background.

Ikseon-dong area – This hip area of Seoul is made up of many small maze-like streets. It’s fascinating to wander around taking in all the locals’ favourite cafes and shops.

Changdeokgung Palace and secret garden – Set within a large park in Jongno-gu, Changdeokgung is one of  the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. The palace is wonderful to look around but do also book tickets in advance for the secret garden tour, which gives more of an insight into the story behind the palace.