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Bethlehem‘s identity was set in stone some 2000 years ago when a certain baby was born in a manger. Since then, the cradle of Christianity has magnetised hordes of pilgrims (about one million yearly) who traipse through the Church of the Nativity (below). Yet in the last couple of years another more unexpected aspect has emerged, namely gourmet food.

A recent surge in enticing restaurants and even hip cocktail bars comes as a big surprise considering Bethlehem lies in the nominally Muslim Occupied Territories of Palestine. And, yes, some Westerners actually think it is in Israel. In fact that hideous separation wall (read my 2008 post about it here) divides the two states, in the process making Bethlehem virtually an island.


You may have spotted a bottle or two over the years, as Lanjarón’s mineral water goes back to 1830, though savvy Andalucians were already lapping up its medicinal springs in the late 18th century. Centuries before that it was a Moorish stronghold, leaving the iconic ruins of a castle teetering on a lone crag in the valley (below). Today, although it’s rare to find a bottle labeled ‘Lanjarón’ (in 2008, new owners Danone fused the brand with Font Vella), the spa town staggers on regardless, lushly green, packed with welcoming shops and cafés – and cheery geriatrics.

Andalucia_Lanjaron_Moorish_castle


When in Lisbon recently, I was amazed at how spruce the city was looking despite all the doom and gloom reports in the press. Contrary to expectations, the Portuguese capital has dozens more riverside haunts, sharp new museums and hipsters pouring into the Cais do Sodré area and the extraordinary LX Factory. Luckily old-time Lisbon is there too, with its touchingly quaint buildings, decorative azulejos and creaking old trams. I was delighted to find the city in such good form, hot and sultry too but with that invigorating Atlantic breeze. Here an old boy laps it up at the top of the Alfama district.


A kick-back country lunch yesterday led me to ruminate (on the long, traffic-choked drive back to London) on the current demise of the Great British Pub. Recent figures state that 12 of them are closing per week, yes, per WEEK. Now that’s a lot, even in our austerity-stricken times though an improvement on a few months previously, when it was 50. So if 4500 pubs have closed their doors in the last four years, how can treasures like this one survive?


Some countries have a branding problem. I’m just back from the Dominican Republic, a country that projects an unfortunate image of heaving all-inclusive resorts, merengue on the beach, sex-tourism and cheap food & booze. In reality only a tiny bit of the country claims those categories, though I’ll admit to having indulged massively in the last one. Cheap, fresh lobster, oysters even (quite divine), cut-price mojitos, Presidente beer…. And these chaps below (near the spectacular 9-km beach of Bahia de las Aguilas) are obviously having a great time- who wouldn’t in such a setting?