Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Although it’s been a while since I lived in the North East, we do still get to experience it when we visit family. It’s become a bit of a tradition that we do a bracing post-Christmas walk, usually on the coast, and this year was no exception. On the day after Boxing Day, we headed to Tynemouth. The weather was as we expected – windy, cold and drizzly. But that didn’t stop people being on King Edward’s Beach, under the imposing priory.

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

The Priory, Tynemouth, England

We decided that the weather was just perfect for a fish lunch. This being the hardy north east, where a blustery wind from Scandinavia doesn’t stop things – you just adapt and do them differently – Riley’s Fish Shack was open, and a very long queue starting to form. If you’ve not heard about this place, where have you been? Snuggling in under the cliffs – if you don’t peer over the Edwardian railings at the top, you’ll miss it – is the most wonderful eatery, we swear you’ll ever encounter. Constructed from two open-fronted shipping containers, this is steampunk heaven. With fish. The best, freshest fish you can imagine.

Riley's Fish Shack Menu, Tynemouth, England

Riley’s Fish Shack Menu

The menu is simple. It consists of what fresh fish they have, at the time you arrive. When it runs out, it runs out. Everything is sourced locally – I mean, how could you source from anywhere else other than the North Sea, when it’s literally lapping around the containers? There’s always a buzz in the queue – and there is *always* a queue as this place is beyond popular – about what’s on the menu. Listen to what other people are drooling over, because if they’re in the queue ahead of you, they’re watching their fish being prepped and cooked. We knew on our last visit that the Goan Monkfish Curry and the Monkfish Tail Kebabs were dead certs – more of the food later, but wowsers!

If you like your interiors to be pristine, with bookable tables and table service etc, this may not be for you. But, if you like quirky surroundings, where you sometimes need to table-share with strangers, and be warmed up with throws and by woodburners, this place is probably right up your street. There is bench-like seating at the front, overlooking the beach and three or four larger tables inside, behind glass doors. For the super-hardy – of which there were many on this very brisk December day – there are groups of canvas deckchairs, around a number of firepits on the beach itself. So, plenty of seating options, but you need to be prepared to be flexible as you might not get exactly where you want.

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

Looking out to Denmark from Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

As you can see, it was a cold day, so we were very lucky to grab a table indoors, with a woodburner in a little nook, at the end of it. Although we did have to share it, as you can see…

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

I think the interior has been really well thought out – very industrial and very raw, with some beautiful touches to soften the edges. Just like its surroundings.

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

Riley's Fish Shack Tynemouth, England

Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth, England

King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth

Deck chairs and fire pits, King Edward's Bay, Tynemouth

Deck chairs and fire pits, King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth

But, what about the food?

Well, let’s say, we’re on the same page as Jay Rayner and GQ Magazine on this one. The menu, on the day we visited, was extensive –  sea food wraps, mackerel, cod, monkfish, kebabs, lobster, squid and side dishes such as Brussel Sprouts (it was still Christmas!), garlic potatoes and breads. The choice was amazing, but monkfish can never be resisted, so the curry and the kebabs were ordered. With drinks, the bill came to £48, so not cheap, BUT the portions were huge! The chunks of monkfish were plentiful and succulent in the Goan Curry and this dish came with jasmine rice and a very large flatbread. Be aware, though, this dish comes with a kick…

Goan Monkfish Curry : Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Goan Monkfish Curry : Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

The monkfish tail kebab dish was equally as huge. Again, big, fat, succulent chunks of fish accompanied by salad, rice, flatbreads and lovely garlicky potatoes with relishes.

Monkfish Tail Kebabs, Riley's Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Monkfish Tail Kebabs, Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

Over Christmas we travelled from Istria in northern Croatia, through Italy, Austria, Germany and France on our way to and from England. And, without a shadow of a doubt, our meal at Riley’s Fish Shack was miles ahead of anything else we ate in the various restaurants we visited, on our trip. We cannot recommend this little slice of culinary heaven enough. Just don’t forget your hat & scarf!

Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Image : https://rileysfishshack.com

Image : https://rileysfishshack.com

 

The Frescoes of Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of Draguć, Istria

In northern Istria, is the small village of Draguć, somewhere I’d never heard of, let alone been to, until this summer. That’s the beauty of Istria. It’s a small peninsula and so I guess that once people who visit have been to the big-hitters – Rovinj, Porec, Pula, Motovun, Grožnjan, Rabac, Opatija – they might think they’ve “done” Istria. Not at all. The surface hasn’t even been scratched. There’s no denying the places mentioned above are stunning and all are well worth a visit, if not an extended stay. But sometimes, it’s the little towns and villages, high up in the hills, or tucked away on winding coastal roads, that are the real jewels in the crown.

In the summer we were driving back from the eastern coast towards Pazin, and saw in the distance, a village perched at the top of a hill. We see lots of these and you can’t stop at them all, but my eagle-eyed sister felt there was something a bit special about this one and so did a quick Google search – resulting in the car being turned around.

When we arrived, although it was the height of summer, it wasn’t thronged with tourists. A few people were wandering around, snapping away at the historic buildings, the Croatian cats curled up in planters, or stretched out on the cobbles, the painted shutters etc. All was quiet – and very, very beautiful. We’d read on Google about the House of Frescoes and were intrigued. Although it wasn’t quite what we’d imagined when we visited it – we thought it would literally be a house, full of frescoes – it was very informative and led to us stumbling upon something so spectacular that I still can’t believe we got up, so close and personal, to it.

The House of Frescoes was opened in the old school building in Draguć, a combined project of the Istrian Region, the Cerovlje Municipality, the Italian Veneto Region and the Croatian Ministry of Culture. They all recognized the importance of mural painting in Istria, a specific phenomenon of cultural heritage whose preservation and presentation requires significant effort and particular expertise. Although there is much more to the building, we were fascinated by the virtual tour of the churches in Istria, which were covered in ancient frescoes, quite a number being in the Draguć area. These churches, for obvious reasons, aren’t open to the general public as a matter of course, but you can have a guided tour, free of charge. Imagine that back in the UK – free of charge! And this was how we got to see inside the Church of St Roc, built at the beginning of the 16th century.

The entrance to the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The interior is completely decorated with frescoes, painted between  1529 and 1537 by  a local painter, Anthony from Padova – not Padova in Italy but Kašćerga, a small village you can see from the church door if looking out across the lake. Before our guide arrived we could only peer at the frescoes through the bars on the windows – and this was awesome enough. Once inside, our minds were blown!

The church is tiny – another small group had joined us, and with twelve of us inside, it was quite packed. So, for somewhere so small, to be covered from floor to ceiling in frescoes, was something else…

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The Frescoes of the Church of St Roc, Draguć, Istria

The fact that these ancient works of art are just there – no roping off, not behind glass, no photography restrictions, completely accessible to the public – is incredible. There is such a feeling of trust and a desire to share these masterpieces with people, and I think this instils in people a sense of responsibility and utmost respect.

This tiny church in a very small, hilltop village in the Istrian countryside could so easily be overlooked – so I guess the message is, get off the main roads and explore. Take those roads which look as if they might up in someone’s farmyard. They often do, but just as often, they end up somewhere like Draguć.

This village is less than 30kms from our village, and there are many, many more like it, all waiting to be discovered. If you have a sense of adventure and want a life more peaceful, but still withing striking distance of every amenity you could ever need, as well as two international borders in less than 40 minutes – Slovenia and Italy – have a look at this website. As we’re hoping to sell our beautiful home, so that we can begin on our next renovation project, not too far away. In fact, if you bought this house, we could be neighbours…

 

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

Hotel Navis, Opatija Riviera, Croatia

Hotel Navis, Opatija Riviera, Croatia

What a treat, a day and night away at Hotel Navis, in Opatija, is. Built into a cliff-face, and with all rooms overlooking the sea, it is situated between Rijeka and Volosko, on Preluk Bay – and for us, not too far away from our home in Istria. We spotted the hotel on one of our first drives back from Rijeka when we moved here, and vowed that we’d investigate it – which we did recently, with friends who were visiting from England. The hotel is very cleverly designed. From the road, only the sign can be seen. A steep drive takes you down to the entrance and the reception and it is only when you get out of your car, that you really appreciate how beautiful it is. Glass walls form the shell of the hotel on the reception level, creating such a feeling of light and space, and bright pops of furnishing colour add to the overall wow factor…

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

We’d arrived quite early, much earlier than the check-in time, and our rooms were still being prepared. How lovely then to be greeted by one of the owners, who chatted to us about the hotel and the gorgeous Opatija Riviera – and who also brought us complimentary pink fizz, whilst we waited. Not a bad way to begin a Tuesday 😉 It was almost a shame when we told our rooms were ready, as we weren’t quite ready to leave the little terrace above the private beach…

Hotel Navis, Opatija

All rooms have balconies and all face the sea. We had a room on the first floor – Room 101 – and our friends had a similar room, on the fourth floor. You can’t miss your room – super-sized room numbers guide you easily, along the corridors. If you like your decor to be neutral, Hotel Navis may not tick your boxes, but we loved the bold colours and designs, and especially the purple, black and red patina walls, the famous coloured concrete Venetian technique.

When we stay somewhere, my rule of thumb is that I want it to be at least as nice as where I live – otherwise I could stay at home. Often, though, our expectations are exceeded – and they certainly were at Hotel Navis.

Rooms have been meticulously designed in this hotel. Dark concrete walls contrast with the floor to ceiling glass doors which slide back, to reveal a balcony and sweeping views across the bay. Our room was perfectly positioned, just above the little pebbled private beach. Rather then sunbeds, this beach has big squishy beanbags which look super comfy – so comfortable that even when some quite unexpected waves rolled in, literally no-one moved. Although that could also have been to do with the waves providing some respite from the searing heat.

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Minimalist accessories and furnishings give the room an uncluttered, spacious feel…

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

Hotel Navis, Opatija

The bathrooms are also a delight. As well as L’Occitane toiletries – a class act – and big fluffy towels and robes and slippers, most rooms have a bath, as well as a shower. And, given that we have tiniest bath ever, anywhere that has a big one, gets a massive thumbs up from us.

The attention to detail continues in the hotel corridors and stairways. Huge glass and concrete planters and vases, filled with greenery (and wine corks), dominate corners and add real interest to what would otherwise be dead space. The dark colours continue – but the hotel is not dark, simply because of the expanse of glass, which reflects the sunlight and the turquoise sea.

Hotel Navis, Opatija

The hotel has, as well as the cute little private beach, a spa and treatment area, and a large sun terrace with a pool and a very stylish bar. It was a luxurious treat to just lounge around the pool, sunbathing and interspersing this with swimming in the sea. The location is so peaceful – nothing beats being able to lie in the sun and just watch boats bobbing about on the water.

Breakfast is amazing. I think it’s probably one of the best breakfasts we’ve experienced, simply because of the range and choice. As well as the location of the restaurant, which literally overhangs the water.

Hotel Navis, Opatija

As well as an extensive cold buffet – with cheeses, meats, breads, fruit, youghurts, cereal, croissants, cakes – there is also a cooked breakfast menu, with so much choice. The consensus amongst us was that we had all made the perfect choices – the lightest, fluffiest omelettes, and poached eggs with avocado and the other with truffles. Breakfast is available until 11am, and with check out until midday, it meant that we could enjoy a long, leisurely start to the day. Although perhaps not as leisurely as those who were opting for the Prosecco with breakfast. Think we missed a trick there 😉

The location of this architect designed hotel really is quite stunning – situated where it is, clinging to the rocks below a road which snakes around the Opatija Riviera, it is very remiscent of the Amalfi Coast. Although without the hoardes of tourists, coaches and back to back traffic, which makes it all the more special.

Got to be honest and say it definitely wasn’t the cheapest hotel we’ve ever stayed in – but you certainly get what you pay for. And as a treat, it was absolutely perfect. Just perfect…

 

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

After spending time on the western side of Mallorca, we decided to explore the eastern side of the island and found a gem of a hotel, called Petit Sant Miquel in the very pretty and very traditional village of Calonge. Renovated and opened in August 2018 by a Mallorcan couple, it is the epitome of relaxation in contemporary and very stylish surroundings. We stayed right at the beginning of the season, which for us was fabulous, as it meant that we literally had this small, but  perfectly formed, boutique hotel almost to ourselves.

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

The interior of the hotel is spotlessly clean and well thought out, design wise. Furnishings and accessories are subtle and stylish, in the colour tones we love – blues, greys and whites with natural touches. The ever-present Spanish floor tiles are much in evidence and as ever, just very beautiful. We stayed two nights and chose to have breakfast outside, in the internal courtyard, because the weather was gorgeous – just like the courtyard, in fact. As with the interior, the exterior just oozes calmness and effortless style. The owners certainly have good eyes for design detail. Marble topped tables, olive trees, lanterns, candles, palette planters and well thought out lighting all create an environment where it’s impossible not to feel completely chilled out. Breakfast is simple but again, well thought out – there are the usual cold cured meats and cheeses and breads and pastries and juices but these are all of a very high standard. We didn’t check, but wouldn’t be surprised if everything was sourced locally. Eggs, to your taste, can also be prepared – always a nice touch.

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

The hotel also operates an Honesty Bar, with very reasonably priced wines and beers and snacks – and the lit up courtyard is a perfect place to enjoy a drink at the end of the night.

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

So, to our room. Well, it’s no surprise it was rather gorgeous. Not huge in size, but the space had clearly been really well considered. With a big double bed, a very sizeable (and very pretty vintage vanilla coloured) wardroble and a table and chair, it had everything you would need for a short stay. The toilet and walk in shower were housed in separate areas within the room, divided by opaque glass – the rainhead shower was powerful and the cubicle was spacious. This gets a big tick from me, as there’s nothing worse bathroom-wise, than a cramped shower area. But the best thing of all – always a bonus if you want a relaxing experience – was the free standing bath. Utter luxury, especially when travelling…

Petit Sant Miquel, Mallorca

We also had a tiny little balcony (although still with two sun chairs and a table) overlooking the courtyard – and it did look as if all rooms overlooking this area had a balcony too.

But perhaps our favourite part of Petit Sant Miquel, and what originally caught our eye online when we were booking, was the rooftop terrace, with views overlooking the rooftops of Calonge, the mountains and the shimmering sea. We spent quite a lot of time on this balcony and because no-one else was using it at the same time, we had it all to ourselves. That meant no fighting over the great big sunbed, with billowing side panels. And it also meant that we had the gorgeous plunge pool to ourselves. It was absolute heaven, soaking up the sun, with a cold bottle of dry Spanish white wine…

The hotel is located in a sleepy (at least when we were there in mid-May) village, although it does benefit from two superb restaurants. Restaurant Bona Taula is a traditional Mallorcan restaurant, specialising in meat and fish. The menu never changes – it doesn’t have to as it is excellent. We had a tapas style meal of whitebait, padron peppers, cheese and potatoes, followed by the most delicious Creme Catalan I’ve ever tasted.

And the second restaurant we tried, and thoroughly loved, was Pizzeria Nou which served amazing pizzas. We ate outside in the vine and honeysuckle and wisteria covered courtyard which was just so pretty. Great food, excellent wine and wonderful service. Both restaurants are highly recommended.

We definitely think we found a bit of a gem when we discovered Petit Sant Miquel, and although we definitely preferred the west side of Mallorca to the east, next time we visit, we will be making a return to this lovely boutique hotel. (This is NOT a sponsored or paid for post. Simply our experience of our visit).

 

Hotel Grand Wiesler, Graz, Austria

Hotel Grand Wiesler, Graz, Austria

Sometimes, you see somewhere online and you just have to go. No matter what. This happened recently when I discovered the website for the Hotel Grand Wiesler, in Graz, in the Styria region of southern Austria. When we lived in Manchester, the thought of seeing a hotel online, in another country, and planning a spontaneous trip, would have been fairly unthinkable, given that we’d have had to have found flights, hired a car and generally have taken a lot more time to do the trip. But now, we can just get in the car and drive – and that’s what we did recently.

In just over three hours, from leaving our house in northern Istria, we were checking into Hotel Grand Wiesler, on the banks of the River Mur, in Graz. The website gave us an idea of what the hotel would be like – it’s a stylish website and ticked all of our We Are Life Design boxes. Recently refurbished, the building was originally five separate guesthouses which were bought by Carl Wiesler in 1870 and turned into one hotel. It’s still a very grand building, with an imposing entrance, but not at all stuffy. In fact, it’s very contemporary and extremely quirky in places. There are apparently 102 rooms, but it seems very small and boutique-like and we definitely didn’t feel as if we were sharing the space with lots and lots of other guests. High ceilings and large open spaces give the impression of plenty of space and so even when we had drinks in the bar, and ate in the restaurant on the Saturday evening, we felt that we had space to breathe and soak up the surroundings. This is the hotel entrance, with  “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” by Austrian artist, Clemens Hollerer.

The Speisessal Restaurant, which is open to the public, and clearly a popular place to dine, is a real visual feast, with bold artworks and installations. When we checked out on Sunday, the Soul Brunch was in full swing, with a DJ on the decks playing some very laid back afternoon tunes. Food, by the way, is exceptionally good – and definitely not overpriced.

Our room, on the first floor, overlooked the street behind the hotel – and what a pretty street it was too. Gorgeous shops including a florist and furniture & interiors and very interesting looking bars and restaurants, with much outdoor seating (rooms have double glazed windows so sound is not an issue) lined the street, and above, residential apartments. The pistachio coloured buildings are very old and very grand, and so for a nosey person like me, it was a thrill to be able to almost peek into them, when dusk started to fall and lamps were lit…

Our room was in the Independent Comfort category and it’s safe to say, it was large. With two huge windows, the room was flooded with light – blackout blinds ensure that no early morning rays waken you too early, though. The bed was super comfortable, and again, probably given the size of the room, very big, with gorgeous white bedding. Furniture is pretty simple – mostly white washed wood, again giving the room a very airy and spacious feel. It had everything you’d need for a short stay – fridge, safe, hanging area for clothes, a low cupboard with drawers, plenty of good lighting options (lamps and dimmers) and sockets and excellent wi-fi. The toilet was in a separate (very) small room, with a hand-painted Mexican Talavera sink sitting on a concrete plinth just outside. A very large walk in shower – and very, very powerful – was partitioned off by glass bricks and perspex door. This could be off-putting if you wanted to shower in privacy, but the size of the shower meant you could be behind the glass bricks and therefore obscured.

Although possibly not to everyone’s taste, one of the features I really liked, was the deliberately exposed plaster in places on the walls. This does seem to be a feature in all of the rooms, and works really well, against the minimalist furnishing and largely white plasterwork.

There are seven different categories of rooms in the hotel, ranging from Tiny Independent to Grand Suite. (Montage images : Booking.Com)

Secure parking is available in a public car park, at Griesgasse 10, which is conveniently located right behind the hotel – the guest rate is €15 per day, and tickets are issued at reception and paid for on check-out. Another bonus is that the hotel also includes a sauna, outdoor area, workout equipment and an Arabian tea room. The wellness areas is open daily from 7am-9pm and the sauna is open from 5pm-9pm, but you can use the wellness area outside of these hours, by prior arrangement with reception. Bathrobes and towels are available.

And, if your criteria for staying somewhere, is knowing that a few famous names have also stayed there, then Hotel Grand Wiesler is definitely the one for you – Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Rolling Stones, David Guetta, Marianne Faithfull, Billy Idol, Joe Cocker, Deep Purple and the Dalai Lama to name but a few.

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!

Maribor, Slovenia

Maribor, Slovenia

Maribor is Slovenia’s second largest city, but that doesn’t mean it’s big, by any stretch of the imagination. Up until now, we’ve overlooked it, in favour of the capital, Ljubljana, whose appeal is immediate. It’s beautiful, full of well restored and well maintained historical buildings, with a winding river, fringed with weeping willows and a fairytale castle on top of the hill, looking down on the red roof tops of the old town. But, we decided to stop over in Maribor last weekend (Sunday evening) on our way back from Graz, in Austria. Although in two different countries, the two cities are only about half an hour from each other, so we arrived in good time in Maribor, hoping to get out and about and explore the city. Unfortunately, Sunday was grey and cold, unlike the previous day in Graz, which had been very spring-like – warm and sunny. The weather obviously didn’t help, but the outskirts of the city were a bit on the grim side. Very down trodden, and with definite reminders of the austerity of the not too distant past. We did wonder if we’d made the right decision, and whether we should just head home – but we’d made a booking and decided to give Maribor a go…

4 Flats, Slomškov trg 11, Maribor, Slovenia

4 Flats, Slomškov trg 11, Maribor, Slovenia

We booked an apartment online, and were delighted to find it was located in the above building (our apartment was the one on the bottom right, with the two big windows). 4 Flats is just what it says – four converted apartments, off a communal entranceway. However, before getting into the apartments, you have to go through the arched doorway, just to the left of the tree. The door is ancient – and could be described as delapidated, BUT it became immediately clear, once through the doorway, that this was a building with real history, and hence the doors…

Internal courtyard : 4 Flats, Maribor  Internal courtyard : 4 Flats, Maribor

Internal courtyard : 4 Flats, Maribor

Look at those walls! If these were in England, they’d probably be being preserved by English Heritage, but these are the communal entrance way, behind the great big delapidated wooden doors. There’s a cobbled accessway, and once the exterior doors are opened wide, residents drive their cars through here, to park in the internal courtyard. Amazing that a building like this, is just, well – there…

Our apartment was actually fab – quite minimalist, but all the right colours for me! Plus, lots of the original features had been retained, including the huge windows – which had an inner frame of double glazing, so absolutely no noise when they were closed.

Two of the other apartments were obviously not booked, and the doors were open, so I did have a bit of a nosey – and can confirm that the images on Booking.Com are completely accurate. All very lovely and well renovated.

It’s worth mentioning that there are parking bays all around the little park just outside the flats – and it’s free on a Sunday. (Payment – very inexpensive – begins at 8am Monday morning). Just across the park, with a view from our apartment windows, is the Slovene National Theatre, with performances of drama, opera, and ballet annually attracting the country’s largest theatrical audiences. We saw the audience leaving after the Sunday evening performance and it’s very clear that the Slovenes like to dress up for the theatre. Very grand, indeed!

The owner of the apartments met us and tried very helpfully to suggest where we could eat on a Sunday evening – although he did struggle, by his own admission, as many places, at this time of year, are closed on a Sunday evening. Nothing for it, then, but to get out and exploring Maribor. The historical centre is very small – and very, very, very old. You can really imagine what life must have been life in medieval times, as many of the buildings are literally teetering on the brink of collapse. We did spot one for sale, so if anyone fancies a bijou residence in Maribor, hit us up and we’ll get the details to you.

Narrow cobbled streets, like the one above, lead off one of the main sqaures – Glavni Trg – down to the Drava River, and the area of Lent. It did look as if the bars which line the river would be lovely in the summer, with plenty of evidence of outdoor seating, terraces and umbrellas already being put out, but it was a bit chilly – even with blankets – outside The Piranha Cocktail Bureau. The logo led us to this very stylish bar…

The interior is very striking, including backlit wall of bottles of spirits and liquers, and furnishings with lots of accents of black. I think I was most impressed by the toilets – scrupulously clean, and everything high gloss black. No photos unfortunately, as I still find it too weird to take photos of loos 😉 We were lucky too, to get a very pink sunset – much welcome after the gloomy afternoon.

Just next to Piranha Cocktail Bureau – and this has been verified by The Guiness Book of Records – is Stara Trta, the world’s oldest vine, growing outside an old medieval house called Hiša Stare Trte, also known as The Old Vine House.

We did eventually find somewhere to eat – Ancora, an Italian restaurant. Suffice it was a pretty surreal experience, but I’ll leave that there.

Monday morning was bright and sunny, so we took the opportunity before heading off, to scoot around the historical centre. One lap of about 30 minutes and you’re done, but there are some sights really worth seeing, especially if you look up, above the street level shop fronts, which are mostly fairly dreary. But look above street level, and this is what you’re greeted with…

Glavni Trg, Maribor’s second largest square

Also in Main Square is The Plague Column. Erected in 1743 to replace an older version, this monument commemorates the end of the plague, which killed over one third of the city’s inhabitants between 1680-81. The large monument, designed by Jožef Štraub, dominates Glavni Trg (the main square) and features a golden Virgin Mary on top of an eight metre column surrounded by six saints. It’s really very, very impressive!

So, what did we actually think of Maribor? To be honest, I’m still a bit undecided. There’s a definite palpable sense of history, and parts of the old historical centre are undoubtedly beautiful. It doesn’t have the sassiness of Ljubljana, or the coastal aspect of Koper. But, there’s something about it. It’s raw and a bit rough around the edges and feels like it’s not quite in 2019. It feels like a city that has a bit of catching up to do. However, when it does, I think that Maribor will be somewhere that should be on your destination wish-list. Until then, if you love history, you will like Maribor. And, if you need a new hat, you’ll definitely like it…

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…