Mandria Del Dottore Toscano : Tarsia : Calabria : Italy

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano : Tarsia : Calabria : Italy

On our road trip around Italy, driving in the Calabrian south was tiring, so we needed to break the journey up from Villa San Giovanni (where you cross to & from Sicily) to Matera and so consulted our trusty oracles – a well thumbed road map and google. Tarsia seemed to be a place that was just about equi-distant, but very remote. As boutique style hotels seemed to be a bit on the sparse side, we plumped for the agriturismo option.

We found Agriturismo B&B Mandria Del Dottore Toscana through a series of internet searches – although it has to be said, finding it online is MUCH easier than finding it in reality. We got to Tarsia relatively easily, then the trail went cold. One thing we have realised is that Italian road signage, once you’re off the main roads, is pretty rubbish. Road  signs are often covered in vines/foliage, or twisted, or burned, or simply not there. After about an hour of aimless driving around, we gave up and asked for directions in a very small bar. We clearly weren’t the first to do this as a call was made and 15 minutes later, a car arrived, we followed & after many twists and turns across hilly countryside, arrived at our destination.

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano, Tarsia, Calabria

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano, Tarsia, Calabria

This was definitely a very rural location, so if you’re after a wild night of clubbing, this farmhouse won’t appeal. Set in acres of rolling hills, there is literally nothing else around you – apart from horses, olive groves and beautiful silence. We felt the need to whisper until we realised that actually no-one else was around to hear us. I think the owners clocked on that we were a little bit stressed when we arrived, and a bottle of their own wine was put out on the table in front of us, with two glasses. Very little communication as they spoke no English, and our Italian, at the time, was pretty basic – but a generous gesture is a generous gesture in whatever language.

A welcome drink. Much appreciated...

A welcome drink. Much appreciated…

The owners live on the farm, and it is a working farm. It’s rustic and rural and although not full of the most modern amenities, it’s perfect for a bit of a get-away. Most importantly, the bed was super comfortable – something that Italians do hold in high regard as we have not slept in anything other than VERY comfortable since we’ve been away. The bathroom was spotless, with a great sized shower, too. A definite plus point.

Splendid isolation, especially after the hustle & bustle of Sicily.

Splendid isolation, especially after the hustle & bustle of Sicily.

An abundance of prickly pears.

An abundance of prickly pears.

Winter preparation well under way.

Winter preparation well under way.

Autumn sunset in Calabria

Autumn sunset in Calabria.

We could have had dinner (with everything being sourced from the land we were staying on), but as we had a kitchen in the apartment we chose to cook & eat on the terrace. We’d picked up some supplies on the way – it’s worth having some staples to cook with, as if you don’t fancy what’s on the menu that night, you’re stuck. Breakfast was very simple – bread, cheese, preserves, proscuitto – but ALL locally sourced.

There are four apartments. We think we might have had the largest as it was the most expensive, and had a terrace, but it was still only 68 euros to stay the night – worth every cent for the solitude and peace. There is also a swimming pool – although this had just been covered up when we arrived (mid-October), but would imagine this is a welcome relief from the Italian sun in the height of summer…

 

 

 

 

Vatican Museums : Rome : Italy

Vatican Museums : Rome : Italy

The Vatican Museums are the public museums of the Vatican City, displaying works of art amassed by the Catholic Church and papacy throughout the centuries, including several of the most renowned Roman sculptures and some of the most important Renaissance artwork in the world. There are 24 galleries in total, with the Sistine Chapel, being the last room visited within the Museum. We booked our tickets online, having read about the queues which can develop, and this proved to be a very good thing to do. Although you do still need to queue to collect the actual tickets – and don’t forget ID to prove who you are – it’s a whole lot quicker than joining the snaking queue around the building. It’s important to know that the following items of clothing are NOT allowed – shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts. And even more important if you visit in the hotter months as you’ll need to be prepared clothing wise. All visitors must pass through airport-style security, and during high season, the wait at security may be up to 30 minutes – and this was guidance when we visited a few years ago, so it may be even longer now. I guess, the rule of thumb is, if you want to visit the Vatican Museums is be organised and get online to make a booking.

So, is it worth it?

Yes, yes, yes, absolutely, yes. It’s a long day – because to even touch the sides, you need to set aside a day. You definitely won’t see everything, although you will probably go through all of the galleries, to get to the end goal. The Sistine Chapel. More of which later.

If you specifically want to visit the Gardens, then make sure you buy a ticket which includes this, as not all do. Ours didn’t, but I don’t think we missed out, as doing the gardens as well, would probably have been totally overwhelming. We started in the Cortile della Pigna (Pine Cone Courtyard), where the bronze Sphere within a Sphere – Sfera con Sfera – sits. Created by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, its meaning isn’t clear, but consensus seems to be that it can be read as a symbol of the emergence of a new world from the old. I don’t think you are supposed to touch it, let alone spin it, but we did see a number of tourists giving it a whirl. And very impressive it was, too…

From the Cortile della Pigna, you begin the tour of the galleries. Be prepared – selfie sticks seem to still be a big thing, so watch where you’re going! The galleries are a bit of an onslaught, visually, so you will definitely miss a lot. Depending on your interests, some will be much more interesting than others, but even the ones that you take a quicker pace through, are dazzling and exhausting in equal measure. I have no idea of the names of the vast majority of the galleries, but I do know that I definitely wanted to see the only painting by Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums – The Deposition of Christ – in the Vatican Pinacoteca, and the Gallery of Maps. Two things ticked off my bucket list. So, what did we see?

Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova

Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova

The boxer Damosseno, by Antonio Canova

The marble sculpture of the boxer Damosseno, by Antonio Canova

Statue of a Roman holding a scroll.

Statue of a Roman holding a scroll.

Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Ceiling frescoes : Vatican Museum

Ceiling frescoes : Vatican Museum

Sala della Rotondo & its Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Sala della Rotondo & its Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum Ceiling : Virgin Mary, Angels and the Holy Spirit

Vatican Museum Ceiling : Virgin Mary, Angels and the Holy Spirit

Child strangling a goose sculpture : Vatican Museum

Child (apparently) strangling a goose sculpture : Vatican Museum

The Resurrection of Christ by Raphael Sanzio, in the Gallery of the Tapestries

The Resurrection of Christ by Raphael Sanzio, in the Gallery of the Tapestries

Italy : Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museum

Italy : Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museum

The Martyrs of Gorkum by Cesare Fracassini

The Martyrs of Gorkum by Cesare Fracassini

Too much to take in, in one room...

Too much to take in, in one room…

The Room of the Popes : Vatican Museum

The Room of the Popes : Vatican Museum

Out of everything we saw in the museum, the ceiling above is one of the things I remember most. If you are fascinated by the history of The Borgias, then this part of the museums might interest you, as its only the Borgias’ Apartments! Imagine that! The ceiling above is in The Room of the Popes and owes its name to the scrolls with the names of popes on them in the room. It is the largest of all the rooms and the pope used it to host official ceremonies, audiences, and solemn banquets.

Image : https://www.museivaticani.va

Image : https://www.museivaticani.va

So, above, the one I wanted to see – and I was so taken by it, that I completely forgot to take any photographs so this is one is credited, in the caption. The Deposition of Christ, painted in 1603, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have no background in art and am not an artist, in any way. But I have always been intrigued by historical figures who led lives that were full of danger and intrigue – and immense talent. So, although I couldn’t appreciate Caravaggio’s work as an art historian might, his life is more than enough to intrigue me and make me interested in his art…

…with his unruly black curls and unkempt black beard, the artist was known to wander the streets of Rome dressed in black, accompanied by his black dog, Crow (the bird-harbinger of death), and brandishing swords and daggers at the slightest provocation.

He and his motley group of friends took as their motto – “without hope, without fear,” – and these were the words they lived by. Caravaggio had a police record many pages long filled with stories of assault, illegal weapons, harassing the police and complex affairs with prostitutes and courtesans. Caravaggio’s numerous legal problems often meant that the artist would suddenly have to flee Rome or be otherwise unable to complete a commission. Caravaggio’s brawling, trouble-making tendencies reached a whole new level on the 28th of May, 1606. On this date, following a disputed tennis match, Caravaggio and his friends were involved in a street brawl with Caravaggio’s young foe Ranuccio Tomassoni and his gang.

Caravaggio ended up dealing the young Tomassoni a fatal stab wound in the groin. With a price on his head, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome for the last time. The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another, all the while trying to get a papal pardon to be able to return to Rome. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta to try to gain the influence of the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, Alof de Wignacourt. The Knights were so pleased with the works the artist executed while on the island that he was accepted into the Order, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”

The artist escaped once again and was back on the run. During this period, an unknown assailant attempted to murder Caravaggio during his sleep, only succeeding in disfiguring his face. Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior such as sleeping fully clothed and armed and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation. The artist desperately continued working, sending paintings to influential figures like Cardinal Borghese and Alof de Wignacourt in order to secure their influence to procure his pardon. Finally, in 1610, Pope Paul V began the process of granting Caravaggio’s pardon and the artist boarded a boat to return home to Rome. He was never to return, however: Caravaggio died under unknown circumstances around the 18th of July, 1610, after only a decade-long career. His body was never recovered….

Last stop on our whistle-stop tour of the Vatican Museums, was obviously The Sistine Chapel. Having heard all of the myths and stories about visiting here, I was prepared to be blown away. And, prepared to not take any photographs, of course. But, all I was left with was a feeling of total disappointment and being underwhelmed.

The Sistine Chapel. Image credit : www.theromanguy.com

The Sistine Chapel. Image credit : www.theromanguy.com

Perhaps I should have read this brilliant article first, but I didn’t, and so my experience was one of being rushed through a massive crowds, with security guards barking instructions from raised platforms. It was horrible. There was no sense of awe or serenity. It was like a cattle market – and if prods had been available, those guards would definitely have used them. It was so crowded that there was literally no point in looking up, to see the ceiling, as you’d have been knocked off your feet if you stopped. Other visitors were really, really frustrated and there was a general sense that we just had to get through as quickly as possible, to allow the next crowd in. I’m going to have to do it again, but I honestly think that next time, I’d opt for one of the small guided tours, as explained here. Well worth the extra expense, I’d say, to get up close to the art. And, not be shouted at by security.

If there’s one way to exit the museums, it’s via the famous Bramante Stairs. These really are a spectacle and rather than leaving on a disappointed downer after the Sistine Chapel, this staircase was a bit of treat.

Image credit : www.romeprivateguides.com

Image credit : www.romeprivateguides.com

Top Tips

So, our top tips for visiting the Vatican Museums :

  • Book online
  • Don’t forget your passport or ID
  • Wear trainers
  • Have a phone charging pack so you can recharge for all of those photos you’ll want to take
  • Be prepared to be pushed through the Sistine Chapel – OR, book a guided tour
  • Don’t expect to take it all in – there’ll be so much you’ll see online afterwards that you weren’t even aware of as you walked around
  • It’s a good few hours to do all of the museums, so set aside a day
  • Have a glass (or two) of refreshing Italian wine after it all…

Puglia : Italy

Puglia : Italy

Living now in Istria, the tiny heart shaped peninsula, right up in the north of Croatia – bordering Slovenia, close to Trieste and across the Adriatic from Venice – we are very lucky that we can now travel to Italy very easily. Muggia is our closest Italian town, and we can be there in about half an hour, taking the coastal route along what’s called the Slovenian Riviera. Previously, when we lived back in Manchester, Italy was a flight away, and certainly not somewhere we’d have considered driving to. But, we did drive around Italy, on a road trip in 2013 and this cemented our love of this country. And, nowhere more so than in the south, an area undiscovered by us previously. The furthest south we had been before had been Naples and Pompeii and we’d not ventured over to the other side of the heel of Italy. But, in late summer/early autumn of 2013, our adventure took us over to the Apulia region and we found our love of this amazing country, strengthened even further.

From the beautiful coastline of the Adriatic and the bustling cities of Bari and Brindisi, to the iconic whitewashed hill towns, to the incredible architectural spectacle of Alberobello, we loved everywhere we visited. And, nearly ten years later, we’re planning a return. But for a very different reason, this time…

A tiny bay, just outside the beautiful town of Monopoli

A tiny bay, just outside the beautiful town of Monopoli

Morning stroll, the Monopoli way...

Morning stroll, the Monopoli way…

The photo, above, is a real stand out memory from our time spent in Monopoli. We were there mid-October, but it was still warm enough for people to be on the beach over the weekend, and like these two women, taking their morning stroll in the shallow waters of this Adriatic bay. It’s something we still talk about and this obviously made a real impression on us, as our thoughts do keep returning to this area.

Fishing boats : Monopoli

Fishing boats : Monopoli

Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia, Monopoli

Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia, Monopoli

Airing the bedding...

Airing the bedding…

The trulli of Alberobello

The trulli of Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello houses about 1500 trulli in its historic centre. With their circular shape, the trulli had to be built dry, without mortar, in order to allow them to be easily dismantled and reassembled and therefore avoid paying the ‘building tax‘ imposed by the Kingdom of Naples. It also is the only town whose historical centre is made up of trulli. It’s as magical as I always imagined it would be. Conical roofs – pinnacoli – are often adorned with a painted symbol. Their origin is unknown but they usually have a religious or astrological meaning, and may include planetary signs, the malocchi (evil eye), crosses, hearts and stars.

Trulli symbols...

Trulli symbols…

Many of the trulli have now been renovated and provide tourist accommodation. Some are now shops, selling traditional wares from the area, including the most gorgeous hazelnut liquer, which will definitely be on our shopping list when we return. We did stay in a trullo, but ours was about ten minutes from Alberobello, in the countryside, with amazing views down to the Adriatic. With hindsight, we’d probably not stay in a location quite as quiet, and would probably opt for somewhere like Locorotondo, Ostuni or Martina Franca. But, it was a real experience. We had a self-contained trullo, with a large living room and kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom – and those all important pinnacoli. As well as a large terrace, there was also a swimming pool – a real bonus as I’m guessing pools are at a premium in the towns.

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Traditional repair of a conical roof

Traditional repair of a conical roof

So, plans are afoot to do another road trip down to this region of Italy, but this time, with a very different purpose. Not just a nice holiday jaunt – although we’ll make sure that we do enjoy ourselves – but with a view to looking at properties. We are spending the winter focusing on the renovation of our home in Istria, and when we are happy that we have done everything that we need to do it, we will start to market it again. And, by that time, we feel that we will have done our time in beautiful Istria, and be ready – and very prepared – for our next European adventure…

sperlonga : latina : italy

sperlonga : latina : italy

We’d not previously heard of this place, but now we know about it, it’s very definitely somewhere we’d revisit next time we’re in the province of Latina. Halfway between Rome and Naples, the very pretty village, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the sea, is a welcome break from the monotonous road south from Rome. Apart from gems like Sperlonga, this coastal stretch, down the west coast towards Naples is not particularly one for sight-seeing, so finding this village was a real treat. Like a lot of Italian towns, the newer part sprawls out below, with the historical centre much higher up.

Sperlonga is a warren of narrow alleyways and steep steps that often open out onto small piazzas. If you’re a bit unsteady on your feet, or with small children, you need to be prepared for a bit of an uphill climb, but it’s worth it. It’s more of a very large village, than a town, but has all of the essential ingredients of an archetypal Italian town – churches, pealing bells, small but upmarket boutiques (Sperlonga is a getaway for Romans…), very chic restaurants & bars, and stunning cliff top views of the (very well regimented) beach & sea, far below. There’s a small port which we took a stroll down to – think Monaco in miniature! There were serious boats moored up, as well as the odd speedboat zipping around the coast. All very nice!

We visited in late September – it was still very warm (air con was needed), but not stifling. The beach was beautiful – long, expansive and like I said before, very well regimented. But that’s generally Italian beaches for you. I’m not sure how I’d like Sperlonga in the height of summer and I imagine it would be very hot and very packed, but it’s a definitely a place to visit if you like history, beauty & out-of-season visits.

A friend recommended a hotel – Hotel Corallo – and we were so impressed by it, that we’d definitely recommend it ourselves. For just over 80 euros, we had a very large double room, with a large en-suite bathroom and a small balcony. Our lack of sea view (obscured by beautiful medieval buildings), was made up for by a stunning view of the sunset. Breakfast was included – if you’re not a sweet-tooth you may struggle with breakfast here, as it was a bit of a saccharine overload, but the coffee was very, very good.

Cake, cake and more cake, for breakfast...

Cake, cake and more cake, for breakfast…

Our stay in Sperlonga was short – an afternoon and an overnight stay, but because we were based in the old town, it was sufficient time to get ourselves familiar with it. It really is a beautiful hilltop town, close to Rome and it definitely does break up that very monotonous SS7 road down the west coast. And, soon, we were back in the car, leaving Sperlonga and back on that road, heading south, on the next part of our Italian road trip.

cagliari : sardinia : italy

cagliari : sardinia : italy

Cagliari is a city like no other Italian city we have visited. It’s a port city, and it wears its history on its sleeve. Everywhere you go you come across traces of its rich past, from ancient Roman ruins, to museums filled with prehistoric artefacts, to centuries-old churches and and elegant palazzi. It is located on the Bay of the Angels (Golfo degli Angeli) and, like Rome, it was built on seven hills, which identify the historic neighbourhoods of the city. The port area is busy, busy, busy – the main road runs along the sea front and cars and buses and vespas and motorbikes whizz past, so you need to be on your toes. Once on the city side though, it reveals itself as a beautifully elegant place, with imposing, honey coloured buildings, with elaborate balconies and shuttered windows, facing the sea. Wide tree-lined boulevards are packed with cafes and bars, and people catching up, eating, drinking and generally making life look pretty wonderful!

We stayed in an apartment, up the hill from the sea, but still “downtown”, on the beautiful Piazza Yenne. The piazza is bordered by bars and restaurants at ground level, and is lively. But, look up, and you see those beautiful buildings with balconies and railings and shutters. Our apartment was on the top floor of one of these buildings and have been exquisitely renovated – with sound-proofing, too, so we could shut out the noise when we wanted to. Piazza Yenne is the main meeting point for locals, especially during the hot summer nights. People gather here to have a chat before moving on; to sit in the terraces of the many cafes and bars, or simply, to passeggiata. Over the course of two visits to Cagliari we were there for four days in total, and so managed to get out and about and explore quite a lot of the whole city. It’s magical. It’s beautiful. It’s raw and feels real, the kind of city you could actually imagine living in.

You can either climb up to the upper town, or take a glass street elevator (at the top of Piazza Yenne) – whichever you prefer, just do it, because the upper part of town is even more beautiful and the views even more spectacular. It’s also not quite a crowded and busy, so you can feel a little more as if you have bits of the city to yourself, even in the height of summer.

 

 

Treviso : Veneto : Italy

Treviso : Veneto : Italy

Amanda and Steve, friends who come and visit us from Manchester, usually fly into Treviso, north of Venice, spend a couple of days there and then hop on the train to Trieste where we pick them up. They keep telling us that we must visit Treviso, because we’d love it. Additionally, my sister and family visited a friend of theirs who was living in the city – and she has also told me about this wonderful city and how she’s always surprised, given our love of all things Italy, that we’ve never been there.

It’s easy to get to from our base in northern Istria, as the SS14 (we tend to try and avoid the motorway as it’s, well – mad…) runs straight to Venice, so it’s just a turn off before hitting the canals. But that’s been the issue so far – every time we’re on this road, we’re either heading to Venice with friends or meeting them, or going further west to Verona or Brescia or Bergamo. Or, back to the UK. So the turn off to Treviso is never really convenient – until this weekend.

Amanda and Steve were flying out for a short break with family and they invited us over, to join them. We always get excited at the fact that we can do this now. Just get in the car and drive and meet friends in another country. It’s what we always dreamed – and it’s now happening!

We left our home in Istria at 11am and taking the more scenic route, and we were parked up in Treviso at 3pm. Just driving through the centre of the walled medieval town blew us away, because it wasn’t at all what we expected. I’m not sure what we expected, but it wasn’t what we found. With its Venetian walls, and red bricked buildings, and many bridges over the river, and winding alleyways with tall, overhanging, balconied buildings, it is very much like Venice. But it’s also like Padua and Cesena and Bologna – but with a feeling of real identity. It’s really difficult to describe – it’s like lots of Italian cities, but like none at all.

Our apartment, Rialto 13, was situated just off Piazza dei Signori, so very central. It was on the fourth floor of a very old building, so no lift – just lots of stone steps. But, once inside it was a haven of modernity – a really, really well equipped separate kitchen which would be perfect if you were staying more than one night, a large bathroom with a washing machine (again, a plus point for longer staying guests) and a big bedroom, which was very tastefully furnished.

The Blue Apartment, Rialto 13, Treviso

Our overnight trip was unfortunately all too short on this occasion. We had a date with IKEA, the following day – and unlike when we lived in West Didsbury, it’s now not as easy as popping over to Ashton or Warrington. From Treviso our choices were east to Padua or west, and back homewards, to Villesse, just outside of Trieste. So we had to hotfoot it through Treviso to get back to Villesse – but not before we’d savoured some of the some amazing sights that the city has to offer. Enough for me to have already been looking at a return trip…

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Officine Cavour : Padova : Veneto : Italy

Officine Cavour : Padova : Veneto : Italy

Our second accommodation on our weekend stopover in Padova was an apartment, slap bang in the historical centre, called Officine Cavour. Directions to the car park were great – but we struggled a little bit initially to find the actual apartment. It’s located in a small square called Piazza Camillo – perhaps the easiest way to locate it is to stand in front of the statue of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, and it’s just behind him, to the left. We stayed on a rainy Sunday in early February, so the square wasn’t exactly alive. However, there was plenty of evidence that it’ll be a different story later in the year, as plenty of very nice looking bars and restaurants were in the immediate vicinity.

The actual apartment is located on the first floor of one of the historical buildings facing into the square. We’d exchanged emails with the owners and had actually arrived much earlier than the stated check-in time, but via the magic of remote access, we were able to get in, and out of the rain, and get warm. Always a good sign, when owners take into account circumstances and don’t stick to rigid rules.

We were super impressed by the apartment. Although not huge, it had everything you would need for a few days. There were only two rooms – the main area and the shower room, and both were so stylish. The attention to detail was fantastic and it’s clear that the owners have really thought about how to create ambience and comfort.

Anyone who’s had peeks of our renovation project in Istria, will have an idea of our taste, and this apartment ticked all of our boxes. We’ve painted our interior stone walls white, simply because it would have been a mammoth task to have them all cleaned up and looking like the one above. A little bit of me does wish I hadn’t been so impatient with the white paint, and given at least one of the walls a chance, but too late now. I’ll have to get my bare brick kicks in places like this! The bed was super comfy, and with that lovely velvet wrap around headboard, was a bit sofa-like when you re-arranged the pillows and cushions. Lighting was all very well thought out – dramatic spotlights in the ceiling and cool industrial lamps, dotted around the room. I also love a bit of faux foliage. I mean, what’s not to like? No watering and no maintenance and they live forever, so these big green plants did it for me, softening up the exposed brick wall and the industrial style furnishings.

The fridge was stocked with a little mini-bar, operating on an honesty bar policy – the welcome pack just asked that anything you took, you paid 3 euros for. We *think* the bottle of water was free, as it wasn’t in the fridge, so apologies Officine Cavour, if it wasn’t. We’ll pay next time we stay ? There was also a generous stock of tea bags and coffee, with a Nespresso style machine. The kitchen area is well equipped – as well as the coffee machine, there’s a toaster, small hob with a couple of rings, kettle, dishwasher, plenty of very clean and well cared for crockery, glasses, cutlery and pans. Drawers were pristine – no crumbs, or signs of other visitors. Clearly somewhere that places hygiene and excellent cleaning high up on the agenda. There’s also a small table and two chairs, so if your stay is  longer than a couple of nights, and you fancy rustling up a simple meal, it can be done.

This is not an impersonal apartment. As I said earlier, the owners have clearly injected personal style and have thought about adding details to create something very lovely. Additions like the glass jar, the Moroccan style rugs, tealight holders, mis-matching lamps all add to the decor and sense of individuality. Also, I have that glass jar, so big tick!

So, two things I love about the above photo. 1. The beams and 2. the hanging plants. Again, my boxes are ticked! Having spent the best part of the last year, treating, caulking and filling, undercoating and top coating, our wooden beams (and still not finished), it’s great to see old beams looking very pretty. Most of ours were far too knackered to ever have ended up looking this good in their naked, natural state. We do prefer ours now, in the soft cool grey satinwood finish, but a good old wooden beam is hard to beat. And, from our beams, I am creating, in various parts of the house, hanging gardens. These green glass globes are gorgeous – they are all over Istria (originally used for wine, people like wine here!) and so rather than having them as floor ornaments, I’m getting my macrame head on, and making hanging globes out of them. My beams aren’t going to know what’s hit them!

I really liked this cute desk set up in the window. How simple? But how effective? A shelf and a chair, with the long curtain pulling across in front, so when it’s time for bed, you can just switch off.

Bathrooms are often the make or break for me in apartments and hotels. I’ve been known to, at best, request a room change. And also, walk out. My maxim is, if it’s not at least as good as what we have at home, I’m not staying in it. (Which is why I really do my research before booking anywhere. Multiple walk outs, and I’d be walking home). But, like everything else at Officine Cavour, my boxes were ticked. Power shower. Separate rain shower head and additional removable shower head. Long shower trap (like I insisted we have), rather than plughole. Tadalak style walls and flooring. Underfloor heating. Everything white. Big sink. Gleaming taps. Good toiletries. Great towels – I even got over the two colours ? Super, super clean.

This was a proper home from home. I like seeing things that I have, in places I stay – it’s always nice to see your taste reflected back. Like the tealight holder and the concrete apple. Like I say, a home from home.

Because we were only staying a night, we definitely weren’t going to cook. So, as we do in most places we stay, we decided to find an Indian/Nepalese restaurant – and Buddha Restaurant came out as the stand out place to visit. Reviews were amazing and it was only a ten minute walk from the apartment. Worth every step of the way – not a grain of rice was left at the end!

Buddha Restaurant, Via Giotto 31, Padova

Mixed veggie platter starter, goan fish curry, lentil dahl, paneer masala, garlic naan, cumin rice and a bottle of Pinot Grigio – just over 50 euros. Utterly delicious. Could not recommend Buddha Restaurant enough.

 

Best Western Plus Net Tower : Padova : Veneto : Italy

Best Western Plus Net Tower : Padova : Veneto : Italy

We often drive around the outskirts of Padova (Padua) when we travel back to Istria from Italy. We’ve always found it – even with Google Maps – quite a perplexing city to get out of. It’s not a big city, but the outskirts are a bit on the confusing side, so we generally use the big red tower as a marker. We’ve never really looked that closely at this tower, because it didn’t seem as if was of any relevance. Until very recently…

We’d booked tickets to see Massive Attack and they were playing at a sports arena on the outskirts of the city. Too far to walk to, we didn’t want to negotiate public transport or book taxis and we definitely didn’t want to drive, so accommodation in the centre – about 5kms away – wasn’t really an option. However, a quick search of hotels near the Kioene Arena included the red tower, above. Turns out it’s a Best Western hotel – the Plus Net Tower Hotel. We usually avoid chain hotels if we can. Not that we’ve anything against them – it’s just that there’s always so much other choice. But, this hotel was a 6 minute walk from the Arena, and reviews were really, really good so we booked a superior king room for € 89.25. To be honest, we weren’t expecting too much – so were absolutely delighted when we arrived and realised what we’d actually booked.

Parking is often an issue when staying somewhere – it’s pretty rare to find free on-site parking, and so we often have to do street parking or a car park. This isn’t a problem, as we do expect to pay if we are using our car and want to park it up somewhere – but, being able to do it for free, and not having to fight for a space, is a definite bonus. As well as lots of space at the front and to the sides of the hotel, there is also an undergound car park. All free for users of the hotel. We’ve definitely noted this, as we drive back to England fairly regularly and always seem to return – usually via Padova – with a haul of goodies, meaning safe parking is sometimes a real consideration for us.

Check-in at The Best Western Plus Net Tower Hotel, Padova

The hotel entrance is very stylish – spacious, with big, soft loungy sofas and cool lighting. I’m not sure how long this hotel has actually been open, but the interior is absolutely pristine. No suitcase scuff marks on the walls. Door handles and light switches were positively sparkling. All very impressive so far.

Room 507 – one of the superior king rooms – was quite beautiful, with caramel and cream interiors. The corner room was huge, with floor to ceiling windows on two sides, so it was light and airy. The bed was very big and super comfy, and additional bedding was stored in a cupboard. For anyone wanting to work when staying, there was a very cool desk, with an additional table and designer chairs. The bathroom was large and exceptionally clean, with a separate walk in shower.

We chose to eat in the hotel restaurant as there wasn’t anything else nearby, so we were taking our chances. However, this was in Italy where food is king. We’ve stayed in hotels in the UK, which were much more expensive than this one, and had food which could best be described as bland. This food was excellent and of a really high standard, with great choice. Not too much choice, which might have suggested that a lot of dishes were possibly frozen. Just enough to know that everything on the menu was fresh. A big basket of warm, freshly made bread was delivered to the table with oils, for us to snack on as we perused the menus. Always a good sign for me when a restaurant has the uber stylish Dag-Style menu covers…

Pumpkin Risotto and Three Cheese Macaroni, with a crisp bottle of Pinot Grigio went down very well. Incredibly tasty and just the right size portions. And for just under 40 euros, an excellent meal.

So, there you have it. A night in a chain hotel – great value for money, extremely comfortable, well designed rooms, an excellent restaurant and superb location for the Kioene Arena, where we had a date with Massive Attack…

 

Carnevale : Venezia : Italy

Carnevale : Venezia : Italy

Apart from Easter in Seville – Santa Semana – we’ve not witnessed a spectacle quite as amazing as the Venice Carnival. We arrived in Venice on a cold, misty February morning, having booked two nights in Venice. Not even considering what time of year it was. We stepped off the water taxi, not really taking in what was happening around us, but something caught our eyes…

Mingled in with the tourists and Venetian residents rushing around, doing normal things, were figures like the one above. Some posing elegantly, clearly used to being a part of this spectacle. Some were strolling along in pairs, groups. Some had even been doing their shopping – I’ll never forget the sight of a Casanova type courtesan, carrying his evening meal supplies in a Conad supermarket shopping bag. And then it dawned on us – it was February. Carnival time!

As we headed away from the Grand Canal and further into the maze of streets and alleyways and bridges, more of these astonishingly beautiful beings appeared. We were utterly mesmerised. Initially, it felt a bit intrusive taking photos, but we quickly realised that the whole point of the promenading was to be seen and photographed, so a simple “Posso?” generally resulted in a very striking pose…

And, just to debunk the myth that Venice is prohibitively expensive, especially over the Carnival, we also enjoyed an afternoon of free theatre and opera in St Mark’s Square. An absolutely exhilerating experience, and definitely one we won’t forget…

 

 

Il Circolino : Citta Alta : Bergamo : Lombardy

Il Circolino : Citta Alta : Bergamo : Lombardy

On trips to Bergamo, we’ve regularly meant to eat at Il Circolino, just off Via Colleoni, up in Citta Alta. But, we’ve never done it. It’s always looked interesting. The menu has always appealed. It’s definitely inexpensive. But, in such a small city, with just so many options to explore, there’s always somewhere else to go. We always say, “We must go!” but every time we’ve decided to go, somewhere else turns our heads. Until our last trip, a couple of weeks ago.

And, do you know what, we’ve been missing out on one the best experiences we’ve ever had in Bergamo. That is how good it is!

Once through the big old wooden front doors, you enter a large-ish dining/bar area. When we visited – a Wednesday lunch time, in early January, this room was packed with locals. Some eating. Some drinking coffee and reading the day’s paper. Some with a glass of wine. Because we’d decided that this time we had to eat here, we were a bit crest-fallen, as it didn’t look like we’d be getting a table anytime soon. However, we were immediately whizzed through this room, and around a corner and into a number of cavernous dining areas. We simply hadn’t expected anything of this size – and again, all areas were packed, largely with locals – and we were lucky to get a table for two. Once seated, we were able to appreciate the amazing surroundings. If I’d had been told the building used to be a convent or a monastery or a church, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Ancient frescoes, which had clearly been uncovered during a renovation phase, were clear to see on the ceilings…

Frescoes : Il Circolino, Citta Alta, Bergamo, Lombardy

And under the frescoes, tables and tables of chatting Italians, all clearly completely familair with the surroundings. (Tourists, like us, were easy to spot, with phones held aloft, snapping away at the interiors and the food and the general buzz).

Proof they are locals – no-one else taking photos. Il Circolino, Citta Alta, Bergamo, Lombardy

This bar/restaurant is a co-operative, founded in 1981 by Aldo Ghilardi and fourteen others. According to the Bergamo website,

Il Circolino is the historic headquarters of the Città Alta Cooperative, born as a meeting place and then became a real social enterprise with the aim of keeping the community united in the light of the new economic and social transformations. Il Circolino is recognised as an Aggregation Centre for Seniors, who can frequent without any obligation to consume in a climate of conviviality. The Cooperative is committed, with the profits made from the restaurant, to multi-sport activities, job placements, cultural events, and volunteering.

We really liked this and dug a little bit deeper, to find out what the building had actually been. And what a surprise. Not a church, or a covent. A prison! And even more ticks, when the menus arrived, as just a look at them, told us that they were DagStyle menus. A bit of We Are Life Design geekiness, there – but we just know that if a restaurant has DAG menus, the food will be good. We’ve never been disappointed so far!

Italian DAG Menus – this bodes well…

The menu, it’s fair to say, was absolutely fabulous in terms of choice and price. All produce is local – I’d guess the provenance could be traced to almost the immediate locale – and we were amazed at the prices. In fact, so amazed, that had the food been a bit average, we’d still have been impressed. But, it was AMAZING. And judging by the turnover of diners, we’re not the only ones who thought this. A daily set menu is available, but I like a little bit more flexibility sometimes, and so we ordered off the normal menu. A huge basket of warm fresh bread and delicious olive oil was delivered quickly, with the house wine we’d ordered. And when I think what we paid for this house wine, compared to the rubbish you get back in the UK, for a comparable price, it makes me so happy that we can get to experience things like this, as the norm, now.

Polenta Taragna with Porcini Mushrooms // Scarpinocc de Parr with Melted Butter & Sage

Says it all really…

The turnaround in this restaurant is incredible. We certainly didn’t feel we were being rushed, and so it was clearly testimony to the efficiency of the operation that as soon as one table was finished, it was cleaned down, set up and the next diners seated. Sometimes lunchtime meals can be a bit soulless, especially if in a cavernous setting – but the buzz of chatter (no music) meant that this was a lovely experience. In fact, so lovely was it, that we didn’t want to leave. Even though tables were being turned around quickly, the staff never made us feel as if we couldn’t just savour the moment. So, more wine was ordered and the dessert menu perused. We’re not greedy, mind you. It was only lunchtime (and we still had evening meal to consider!) so it was a dessert with two spoons…

Apparently, in the summer, this place is just even more wonderful, with a fabulous outdoor terrace. So, whatever time you might go – day/night, summer/winter –  we cannot recommend this hidden gem any more highly.

Il Circolino, Vicolo Sant’Agata 19, 24129 Bergamo Italy