Treviso, Italy

Treviso, 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

The Backstreets of Bergamo

The Backstreets of Bergamo

Bergamo, located west of Milan, in the region of Lombardy, is beautiful. Often overlooked for the more glitzy (and possibly more brash) Milan, it has everything. There is the lower, more modern town (Citta Bassa) – although, as well as your retail therapy kicks, you can still soak up the history of the town. Wide thoroughfares are home to a host of familiar shops and stores – Benetton, Zara, Coin etc – as well as churches, grand residences now converted into boutique style hotels, theatres, museums, elaborate government buildings, and many, many coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Like many Italian towns, it also has a fortified upper town, Citta Alta, reached either by a very pleasant walk uphill or by the easier Funicular, which is great if you want expansive views of Bergamo and way, way beyond, to the snowy peaks further north.

Citta Alta is a walled town in its own rights – more than 4kms of walls, built by the Venetians. A couple of days of leisurely strolling and you’ll be familiar with Piazza Vecchia, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, next to it the Cappella Colleoni, and next to it, The Baptistry. You’ll walk through the impressive entrance to Citta Alta at some point – Porta San Giacomo. You’ll also inevitably walk along the main cobbled thoroughfare – Via Bartolomeo Colleoni, from Piazza Vecchia to the arch which takes you to Piazza della Cittadella and beyond to the next funicular, up to the upper upper part of Bergamo – San Vigilio.

But, you also need to take the time to look up and look around you – because as well as the more obvious beautiful sights, you’ll start to see some real hidden treasures…

Vineria Cozzi, Citta Alta, Bergamo

City Walls Topiary : Citta Alta, Bergamo

Religious iconography – make sure you look up as these pieces of artwork are all over Citta Alta, Bergamo…

Original exposed frescoes under the eaves, Citta Alta, Bergamo

I love these huge, wooden doors, with the tiny door and the big wrought iron knocker, Citta Alta, Bergamo

This wall is on a back street, in Citta Alta – just look at what has been revealed as the plaster & render falls off…

Letter box : Citta Alta, Bergamo

Gorgeous Juliet Balconies, above eye/street level. Always look up! Citta Alta, Bergamo.

Gothic glory… Citta Alta, Bergamo

Even in restaurants, you need to look up!

Through a doorway in Citta Alta and this…

More exposed frescoes : Citta Alta, Bergamo

One of Bergamo’s many, many churches : San Vigilio

Hope you’ll agree that Bergamo is pretty special – and if you’ve not been before, that maybe we’ve inspired you to investigate it, especially as it’s the perfect destination for a weekend break. Previously, we used to catch a later afternoon flight out on a Friday from Manchester and return early evening Sunday. The airport is only about 6kms from the city, so you can really squeeze out every single minute!

Officine Cavour, Padova

Officine Cavour, Padova

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

Best Western Plus Net Tower, Padova

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…

 

Il Circolino, Citta Alta, Bergamo

Il Circolino, Citta Alta, Bergamo

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

Vineria Cozzi, Citta Alta, Bergamo

Vineria Cozzi, Citta Alta, Bergamo

If you follow this blog or our Twitter feed, you’ll probably we know love Bergamo in Northern Italy. And Vineria Cozzi, on via Bartolomeo Colleoni, the beautiful cobbled thoroughfare off Piazza Vecchia in the old, upper town, is just stunning. It’s a family run restaurant, that is just an utter delight, decor-wise. And that’s before you’ve seen the menu…

The menu is innovative – although not pretentious so you do feel as if you actually being served a proper hearty meal. Given the standard (and quantity) of it, it’s also inexpensive. So, if you are ever in Bergamo, do yourself a favour & go visit Vineria Cozzi

 

Castello della Botta, San Pellegrino

Castello della Botta, San Pellegrino

Nothing excites us more on our travels than finding unique and unusual places to stay, and Castello della Botta, high up in the hills above San Pellegrino Terme, is very definitely both!

We were staying in Bergamo but decided to check out the spa town in the Brembana Valley, just 40 minutes away and we found Castello della Botta online. It’s located high up above the town, so a car is quite necessary – but the views down, are spectacular.

The property is described as a 16th Century former castle – maybe not quite on the scale of castles we’re used to here in the UK, but impressive nevertheless. Every room seems to tell a tale – and you can actually see the history of the building in the frescoes in the Library. Original, antique furniture fills the rooms – but because they are large, the decor isn’t over-powering.

Our room was huge, with a four poster bed, a balcony overlooking San Pellegrino in the valley below, and large bathroom with a jacuzzi bath. All making for a very relaxing stay 😉 Breakfast is served in a large dining room – and is delicious. Fresh, local produce and lots of it! We were the only guests staying at the time and this made it even more special.

We visited in April, and although the skiing season was coming to an end, there were still opportunities for a bit of snow – as well as sunbathing – action in the tiny resort of Foppolo. (A place we’d tried to get to in January but the snow was so bad, that a snowplough was stuck in drifts, blocking the mountain road and we had to turn back to Bergamo, so nice to see it. Eventually!)

 

An Italian Roadtrip

An Italian Roadtrip

One of the great joys of traveling through Italy is discovering firsthand that it is, indeed, a dream destination. – Debra Lavinson

We are pulled to Italy, time and time again. In September – October 2013, we did quite an extensive trip, planning as we went along. This blog will set out to record where we went and with some tips/advice along the way…

Tuscany

We were very lucky to start off our trip with a stay for a week, with friends, in a very remote villa, just outside Sante Luce, in the hills of Tuscany. The location enabled us to not only thoroughly begin to wind down, but also to get out & about and visit San Gimignano and the coastal resort of Vada. The villa – Podere Le Pianacce – was booked by friends, via Tuscany Now and details of this, and other villas, can be found here.

Rome

We’d booked rail tickets from Pisa to Rome prior to coming out to Italy and this was such a good decision. Fairly inexpensive for first class travel for two, on a Friday afternoon, for 92 euros. We’d also pre-booked a hotel – Hotel Prati – for two nights which was actually a bit of a disappointment. Upon arrival, due to over-booking, we were taken to the sister hotel, only around the block, but the room was VERY small & very basic. We did ask immediately for a change of room, but none were available – it was only a two night stay, so not a huge problem. It would have been though, if we had been in Rome any longer. This was the only glitch to our stay in the amazing Rome, and over two days we were able to easily take in the Trastevere area, Castel Sant’ Angelo, St Peter’s (although not the trip to the top as we did that on our last trip), and Piazza Navona, as well as the lesser known Fontana dell’ Acqua Paola

Roma 2013
Roma 2013
Roma 2013
Roma 2013
Roma 2013

Greece – Corfu & Paxos

We took a short, early morning flight from Ciampino airport to Corfu (Kerkyra Airport), meaning that we could spend a day & night in Corfu town, before taking the ferry to Paxos. We stayed for a night in our favourite hotel – Siorra Vittoria. Other highlights  included Restaurant Bellissimo (best home-made food, honestly!), located in Lemonia Square.

Corfu Town 2013

Corfu Town 2013

Paxos is a 90 minute ferry ride away from Corfu, and is right up there as one of our most favourite Greek islands. Ferry tickets are just 15 euros and bought from the Despina ferry office, just across from the newly refurbished and quite swanky port. Once on Paxos, recommendations would definitely be the capital – the port of Gaios, and the smaller port town of Loggos. Both towns (very small) are on the eastern side of the island, so you don’t get the amazing sunsets, but you do get everything else! Monognissi, to the south of the island is worth a visit and there are plenty of small inland villages, if you want to explore authentic Greek life. A day trip to Anti-Paxos (don’t forget the last ferry back, or you’ll be stranded) is an absolute must…

Paxos 2013
Paxos 2013
Paxos 2013

Frascati, Lazio region, Italy

We started off our tour proper of Italy with a night in the Roman hilltop town of Frascati, famous for its wines. We travelled on the first ferry of the day from Paxos to Corfu, got a taxi to from the port the airport (about 15 euros), caught a connecting flight to Rome Ciampino, picked up our hire car and were in Frascati by lunchtime. We stayed in quite a modern hotel – Hotel Villa Mercede – which was good, but if we’d been staying longer, would have chosen a hotel in the beautiful old centre of Frascati.

Sperlonga, Latina province, Italy

We hit the road next day, driving towards the west coast and then south, down to Sperlonga, which had been recommended to us by a friend who knows the area. It’s a beautiful hilltop town, full of cobbled streets, stairways, cobbled alleyways, tumbling bouganvillia plants in the most vivid pinks and reds, and an amazing view down the wide, sandy beach right below. There’s a small harbour too – well worth the climb up & down the  many steps 😉 We stayed in Hotel Corallo right in the heart of Sperlonga, which is full of lovely bars and restaurants. Just be warned though if you stay in this hotel – they offer the sweetest breakfast we experienced in our whole trip. We had some early morning sugar rushes, but this one beat them all. And still remains to be beaten!

Sperlonga 2013
Sperlonga 2013

Castellabate, Campania region, Italy

After a night in Sperlonga, and fuelled by sugar, we hit the road again, travelling south, hugging the western coast road as much as we could. The one thing to say about this stretch of the Italian coastline, is that it ain’t pretty. For miles and miles and miles. Industrial zones are broken up by towns which look as if they have definitely seen better days. There is a real sense of poverty and hardship in this part of Italy – it was also the only part where, again for miles and miles, prostitutes very openly worked the roadside. This was also our longest stretch of driving, as there was literally nowhere, we wanted to stop. The journey was broken up by a rush-hour drive through Naples – we still shudder about how terrifying this actually was – and once south side, we headed on towards to Salerno, intending to stop there for the night.

As an aside, we did do the Amalfi coast drive, taking in the whole of the peninsula, including Sorrento, Massa Lubrense, Positano, Praiano & Amalfi. All very beautiful, and the road was stunning for scenery, but it eas all just very, very touristy. In Positano and Amalfi particularly, there were just scores and scores of tourists on coach trips, getting off to snap the views and straight back on to the next beauty spot. I’m sure George Clooney has a different experience, but I just found the whole experience to be a bit soulless – and as beautiful as the Amalfi coast undoubtedly is, we experienced much more beautiful roads, especially on the east coast. A shame that I felt this way, but I guess I’ve sort of done it now, and have no real desire to be herded around expensive restaurants and shops selling over-priced souvenirs, again.

Unfortunately for us, the Italian GPO national convention was on in Salerno, and there was not a bed to be had in  the town. As the postal workers had bagged them all, we had no choice but to carry on. It was now dark and we were tired, but somehow, after a couple more unsuccessful attempts (Spinetta Nuova and Paestum – which, if we’d seen on daylight we would definitely have stayed at & explored), a wrong turn led us to the hilltop town of Castellabate. And it was possibly the best wrong turn we’ve ever made

Castellabate 2013

Tropea, Calabria region, Italy

Another long drive followed the next day, this time right down to the Calabrian town of Tropea – famous for its sweet red onions and chillies – and this time for a longer stay. We booked, when we arrived in the town called the “jewel of Calabria”, four nights in Hotel Residence Valemare. All I will say is you have been warned, if you are ever in Tropea. Avoid this hotel. And avoid again. It was so appalling, we left as soon as we could the next morning, not knowing if we’d get any money back, but delighted that a room was available in the stunning Hotel Rocca della Sena. It is AMAZING and we had four days of utter luxury, soaking up the beautiful Tropea, before heading off for Sicily.

Rocca della Sena, Tropea
Tropea 2013

Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

Ortigia is a peninsula, connected to the large, modern & fairly unattractive (although I stand to be corrected as we didn’t overly investigate) city of Siracuse on the south eastern coast of Sicily. We sailed over from Reggio Calabria on the car ferry to Messina and drove down the eastern coast of Sicily, straight to Ortigia. A long journey, but worth doing it in one go – driving very close to Etna was a particular highlight. We’d booked an apartment via Owners Direct so were able to live a bit more “normally”, right in the heart of ancient Ortigia. It was a perfect base for a bit of touring – we actually stayed a second week, in a different apartment, because it was such a great place and we were able to take in such places as Ragusa Ibla, Noto, Fonte Bianchi and on the way back north, to catch the ferry back to Italy, a night in the very lovely Taormina. Sicily is much, much recommended by us – especially the east coast.

Sicily 2013
Sicily 2013
Sicily 2013
Sicily 2013

Tarsia, Calabria region, Italy

After the hustle & bustle of Ortigia, we decided that we’d like some real peace and quiet in the heart of the Italian countryside, and so plumped for an agristurismo we found online, called Mandria del Dottore Toscano, in the area of Tarsia. This blog explains what it was like – the only additional thing I would add, is don’t get disheartened when you think you will never find the agriturismo you have booked. Even with google maps, you’ll get lost, and there is a very simple reason for this. Italian road signs, particularly in the countryside, but often in cities and towns, are quite rubbish and if you rely on your general sense of direction, or use the sun to guide you, you’ll probably arrive there quicker, and less stressed, than trying to follow road signs 😉

Tarsia 2013

Matera, Basilicata region, Italy

Next stop on our journey north, was the jaw-dropping town of Matera, deep in the Basilicata countryside. Until the 1950s, Matera was an impoverished town, with people living in caves, in desperate conditions, with no electricity or running water and high infant mortality. Between 1953-1968, people were moved out of the cave dwellings and into the new town. In 1993, it became a UNESCO world heritage site and many of the dwellings are now converted into boutique hotels. However, it is not the easiest place to reach and still seems to be relatively undiscovered by tourists. It’s probably one of the most unbelieveable & other-worldly places I have ever been to. Special mention must be given to Hotel Basiliana – just stunning. A place I will never forget…

Matera 2013
Matera 2013
Matera 2013
Matera 2013

Alberobello, Puglia region, Italy

Leaving Matera, we headed east on the relatively short journey across into Puglia, eyes peeled for our first sight of a trullo. Given what we were about to encounter, I still love this image of the very first one, hidden in the trees, that we came across as we hit Puglia…

Trullo, Puglia

This didn’t prepare us for what we saw when we visited Alberobello, Locorotondo and Martina Franca. These towns are like magical kingdoms, with what look like hobbit-style houses, often white washed, with amazing stone conical rooftops. And there are hundreds of them, scattered about the countryside.

Alberobello, Puglia 2013
Alberobello, Puglia 2013

We arrived in Puglia in the middle of October, and although we did have some glorious sunshine, it’s fair to say autumn was on its way. The trulli we had booked into – Pietra Preziosa – is located above Alberobello, on quite an exposed hilltop, so it was already becoming cold. However, the trulli was such a cosy place to stay, that the nightly howling winds (& sometimes lashing rain) only added to the atmosphere. It was difficult to find initially – the owner had to come out to Alberobello to collect us initially, but when we found our bearings it was actually a joy to get lost in the countryside. As the season was coming to a close, not only were we the only guests, but the pool was also closed – however, neither detracted from the experience of our very own hobbit house 😉

Puglia 2013
Puglia 2013

The Gargano region, Italy

From Puglia, we had no accommodation booked, no real timescale and no plan – apart from heading north, so we headed across to the east coast road (E55), heading up towards Bari. The first stop off we had was a beautiful find – Monopoli. A gorgeous coastal town, with an historic centre and definitely somewhere we think we’ll revisit, especially if we ever fly into Bari.

Monopoli, 2013
Monopoli, 2013

We continued up the E55 (and the eastern coastal side of Italy is so much prettier than the stretch of the west between Rome & Naples), taking in Bari, which is certainly not the industrial, rough port I had always imagined it to be. The road hugs the Adriatic coastline and is spectacular in places, becoming even more interesting when you hit the Gargana peninsula. Manfredonia is the gateway to this area of Italy which I’d previously known nothing about it, but which proved to be a bit of a highlight of the trip. The middle of the peninsula is quite mountainous, and we wanted to get across to Peschici on the northern side – we didn’t fancy taking mountainous roads in the dusk, so instead, continued along the coast, being lucky enough to see, just as it was getting really dark, the famous 25 mt high monolith rock which rises from the sea, on the shoreline of Vieste. We’d booked a night in Peschici in Borgo del Nespolo and couldn’t have more delighted with the choice we’d made…

Borgo del Nespolo, Peschici

Next place on the list to visit was the town of San Giovanni Rotondo, the town that fans of Padre Pio flock to – we found this such a bizarre, fascinating place that there’s a blog here about it. Nuts 🙂

However, driving across the Gargano peninsula to reach this hillside town, opened our eyes to this previously unknown part of Italy – and as autumn was starting, it was such a gorgeous time of year to discover it. It’s high & mountainous, and the air is filled with the sound of alpine cow bells. We were so lucky to see an eagle, literally flying above the car and wild horses…

Gargano Peninsula, Italy

 L’Aquila, Abruzzo region, Italy

I will be adding a separate blog about L’Aquila, because it was just a very special place. On 6th April 2009, an earthquake devastated the city, killing over 300 people, injuring over 1500 and leaving 65,000 – out of a population of 72,000 – homeless. The city is still rebuilding itself…

L'Aquila, 2013
L'Aquila, 2013
L'Aquila, 2013

We stayed in Hotel La Compagnia del Viaggiatore, about 5kms from the city centre and it was lovely. It is a modern hotel – but given that most of the city centre hotels will have been destroyed, this was only to be expected. We are so glad we ate in the hotel restaurant  – again, first impressions weren’t what we usually go for, but the food was so good (as was our room), that we booked an additional night in the hotel.

L'Aquila 2013

Rimini, Emilia-Romagna region, Italy

From L’Aquila, we headed back to the east coast and took the E55 most of the way to Rimini, discovering places such as Fano, Pesaro and Cattolica, before reaching the Italian riviera seaside town of Rimini. A town that has everything – historical centre, huge beach, fantastic restaurants and one of the best hotels we stayed in, during out trip, DuoMo Hotel. In fact, due to the flexibility of our trip, this was another hotel where we booked an additional night on spec. Our visit was during October, but we had beautiful weather and a beach, literally to ourselves…

Rimini 2013

Venice

Because we were nearing the north eastern part of Italy, we couldn’t resist a trip to Venice. We had already made a booking in a hotel in Verona, so this was literally a flying visit from Rimini, but we set off and by early lunchtime were in Chioggia, a fishing port in the south of Venice’s lagoon. It has been described as a “mini Venice”, and I could sort of see it, but it was a gloomy afternoon, and I just wasn’t feeling it…

Chioggia 2013

…so we set off for Venice. I went to Venice many years ago but really wanted to explore it properly. I remembered that it is actually quite small, so was sure we’d be able to get quite a lot done in one afternoon, and was right. Top tip – it is expensive, so stay outside and do day trips. Means you can also explore the region too, and as we showed next, Verona isn’t that far away. The blog I wrote about our trip to Venice, can be found here.

 

Verona, Veneto region, Italy

As we had a booking at Hotel Verona, we decided to take the A57 and then the A4 motorways to get to Verona quicker. We know Verona quite well and had stayed in the hotel previously, so arrived in good time – there is free parking under the hotel, so great if you have a hire car. The hotel is located just outside of Corso Porta Nuova, so great for the amphitheatre, restaurants, bars, shops, Juliette’s house & balcony, Piazza Bra (the main square) and down to the River Adige. Another beautiful city- and even Juliet’s house is worth a visit…

Hotel Verona, Verona

Bergamo, Lombardy region, Italy

On the way west to Bergamo, we stopped off for the afternoon in the beautiful Sirmione, on the southern tip of Lake Como. Breathtakingly gorgeous – with weather to match…

Bergamo is a huge favourite for many reasons. The old city (Citta Alta) is just 15 mins from the airport and it’s a relatively short flight from Manchester, so perfect for a weekend break. It’s also close to Milan and very accessible for ski resorts further north. To the south, the Cinque Terre is accessible within a couple of hours. A city which offers history, great food, and is close to the mountains and the sea. We’ve usually stayed in the new, lower city (Citta Bassa) and taken the funicular or walked to the old town up the hill, but this time we stayed in the heart of the old town, just off the main square, in Hotel Piazza Vecchia for three nights. We then did an AirBnB, and found a fabulous apartment, in the lower town, but in the best location. Another one that was so good, we booked for a week, then booked another.

I’ll be posting a separate blog about Bergamo, packed full with recommendations and tips – it’s too good a place not to!

Milan, Lombardy region, Italy

A trip to Lombardy probably wouldn’t be complete, without a trip to the style centre of Italy. It is an amazing city, but not one of my favourites. For me, it’s a bit too impersonal and bit too cool. If you want to be seen, it’s definitely the place to be 😉 We took the train from Bergamo and it was only an hour – we had the advantage of staying with friends, so didn’t get to check out any hotels this time, but there’s always the next time. We also ended our trip around Italy in Milan – we were moving on to a last few days in Paris and took the train. Very affordable, too. It was about £100 each , but given it was over a seven hour journey and we travelled 1st class (as there was so little price difference between 1st & 2nd class), and travelled in real luxury, it was so worth it. And a lovely way to say goodbye to Italy in 2013.

 

Padre Pio : The Superstar Saint

Padre Pio : The Superstar Saint

Having driven around much of Italy, I think we can safely say that this guy – Padre Pio – is very definitely a superstar saint. You can hardly escape him – statues, images, grafitti, even a whole TV channel dedicated to him. I had heard of him before & had been mildly fascinated by the tales of his stigmata, and when were staying in Peschici & found out (via said TV channel!) that the town of San Giovanni Rotondo was a mere 30kms away, we had to investigate…

I’m sure that many people find this place deeply moving, but to be honest, I found it a bit nuts. Padre Pio’s image looms large, especially from the hospital, up on the hill. Tour buses spill religious tourists out. Stalls, peddling religious paraphenalia, can’t be missed. Priest and nuns mingle with the visitors in bars and restaurants. Everywhere trades on the Padre Pio story – and it’s quite clear that it’s a vibrant economy.

However, the real wealth is all too clear in the actual shrine of Padre Pio, inside Santa Maria della Grazie, the church which was built to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims – and the 50+ new hotels, which have sprung up in the town. As well as the actual tomb of Padre Pio, where he lies, his body well preserved, but without any signs of the stigmata (hmmm…), the walls and ceilings are elaborately mosaiced.

Devout pilgrims, some in wheelchairs, many clearly unwell, file past the open casket, praying, and usually stuffing paper money into the collection boxes.

Outside, the shrine is just as elaborate – and very much a homage to the superstar saint, who has a TV channel and a radio station dedicated to him!

If you’re in the area, and want to visit this fascinating (in may ways) town, you can find more details here.

Holiday Fever, Alghero, Sardinia

Holiday Fever, Alghero, Sardinia

Fortunately, when we booked a night’s accommodation in Algehro, Sardinia, I was looking more at the room/bathroom/reviews than the name, and so really only realised when the confirmation email came through that the name was so awful. I mean, “Holiday Fever“…

However, we could not have been more pleasantly surprised by Holiday Fever – and totally fell in love with Alghero. Here’s what we posted on Trip Advisor…

Holiday Fever is probably the worst name for holiday accommodation, but if you can get over it, this is actually a really good place for a short stay in Alghero. There are three rooms, located on the first floor of a traditional Sardinian building (the communal entrance way is just that – communal, a little bit tired looking & it did actually give us the wrong impression of what was behind the door to our accommodation…). There is no reception, but we made a quick call to the owner, and she was with us within 10 mins.

Our room was more than satisfactory for a night’s stay – a lengthier stay might prove a bit more problematic as was fairly small, but it was exceptionally clean, and the furnishings were very tasteful & comfortable. There is good internet access, satellite TV, a fridge, good size wardrobe, very comfy double bed – and a sparkling bathroom, with a powerful shower. There is a cafe/bar below (as has been mentioned in previous reviews), but you’re in a city. Close the windows, put the air-con on, and it’s not a problem.

The accommodation is located literally 2 mins from the port & the old town of Algerho – we were delighted that within 5 mins, we were strolling through the beautiful old centre. Alghero is stunning – and Holiday Fever, because of its location, enabled us, in the very short time we had, to explore it & get to know it.

Highly recommended. But, I’d be changing the name 😉

Because of the nature of the accommodation, breakfast is not available in Holiday Fever, but you are given vouchers for a cafe directly across the road (at the entrance to a lovely park). We had to leave very early the next morning, so did not have the opportunity to try the breakfast – however, the cafe did look very nice and so would imagine that breakfast there is more than adequate.

We booked Holiday Fever via Booking.com and paid just over 60 euros for a very pleasant stay, in the stunning city of Alghero. This deserves a blog of its own, but here’s a sneaky peek…

Holiday Fever, is located at Via Catalogna 10 – Alghero (SS), Riviera del Corallo – Sardegna (Tel. +39 389 87 11 333), and is literally around the corner form the old port & city walls. It is about 10km from Alghero to the airport (AlgheroFertilia Airport) and easy to get to – just follow the signs for the village of Fertilia.

*A word of warning – we hired a car in Cagliari from Europe Car and arranged to drop it off at Alghero airport at 7am so that we could catch a connecting flight – this was all pre-arranged and actually indicated on the car-hire documents. However, NONE of the car-hire drop off points (even  the big ones such as Hertz), actually open until 8am. We took plenty of photos of the car, and posted the keys and documents, with a note, through the window of the Europe Car office in the main terminal building. This was done on the advice of the Hertz guy who had arrived to open up his office – it’s apparently quite common practice 😉 Three days later, our deposit was fully refunded.