Mandria Del Dottore Toscano : Tarsia : Calabria : Italy

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano : Tarsia : Calabria : Italy

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

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

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano, Tarsia, Calabria

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano, Tarsia, Calabria

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

A welcome drink. Much appreciated...

A welcome drink. Much appreciated…

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

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

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

An abundance of prickly pears.

An abundance of prickly pears.

Winter preparation well under way.

Winter preparation well under way.

Autumn sunset in Calabria

Autumn sunset in Calabria.

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

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

 

 

 

 

Puglia : Italy

Puglia : Italy

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

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

A tiny bay, just outside the beautiful town of Monopoli

A tiny bay, just outside the beautiful town of Monopoli

Morning stroll, the Monopoli way...

Morning stroll, the Monopoli way…

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

Fishing boats : Monopoli

Fishing boats : Monopoli

Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia, Monopoli

Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia, Monopoli

Airing the bedding...

Airing the bedding…

The trulli of Alberobello

The trulli of Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

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

Trulli symbols...

Trulli symbols…

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

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Traditional repair of a conical roof

Traditional repair of a conical roof

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

Treviso : Veneto : Italy

Treviso : Veneto : Italy

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Apartment, Rialto 13, Treviso

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

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

Treviso, Italy

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.

London : England

London : England

Not too long ago, when we still lived in Didsbury, we often thought about having time away in London, but never got round to it, because, well – London was just too far away from Manchester. The traffic would be awful. We’d end up sitting on the M6 or the M25. It was over-priced and over-crowded. And so, for a long time, we never did the trip. The last time we were in London was, I think the early 90s. But things are different now. We think nothing of long trips – and so when we were planning our Christmas road trip back to England, we decided that this time we would take in London.

Not all of it, of course – we were on a fairly strict timescale and so had to narrow down where we were staying, so that we were able to do a bit of the touristy trail, but also head up to Manchester quite quickly. As we were driving, we took a ferry from Calais to Dover, so it made more sense to stay in the East, rather than driving through the London traffic on the afternoon of the last Friday before Christmas. Rather than search by area, I searched for accommodation that I liked the look of first, and then checked out the area – and this was how we came to find the very lovely Pilot Inn, in Greenwich. The journey from Dover up to Greenwich was easy – just over an hour, straight up the A2. No traffic jams either. As you will all know, Greenwich has changed beyond recognition. We’re lucky enough to now visit lots of places on our roadtrips, but there was something quite exhilerating about being a tourist in London, and seeing for real some of the landmarks we’ve only seen on TV.

My usual choice of accommodation isn’t usually a pub with rooms above, but The Pilot Inn ticked our boxes. It has been refurbished and whilst it is still a pub downstairs, it has been very stylishly renovated. There’s a restaurant too, and we chose to eat here – it’s clearly a very popular choice amongst locals as it was packed. The food was exceptionally good, too – definitely not pub grub. Breakfast next morning was as good, with plenty of vegetarian options, too. Our room was lovely – just what we needed after a long journey through Slovenia, Austria, Germany, France and across the channel. Very tastefully decorated, with a super comfy bed, metro-tiled bathroom with a powerful walk in shower, strong wi-fi and views of the O2 Arena and the iconic gas holder at East Greenwich Gas Works. Another bonus was free parking bays, just outside the accommodation.

A good sized piece of green space, right in the heart of Greenwich Peninsula. The Pilot Inn is at the end of the little terrace, to the right.

Love a navy wall. Makes me feel right at home!

River View, Greenwich, with The Pilot Inn at the end of the terrace. The very terrace (albeit with doors now painted blue) that featured in Blur’s “Parklife” video…

Blur : “Parklife”. With red doors.

The Pilot Inn is perfectly located for the O2, which is no more than a ten minute walk away. Again, ashamed to say, we’ve never been here since the area was redveloped and so were quite surprised at how beautiful it all is now. With the Canary Wharf glass towers glistening in the winter sunshine, and the redevelopment of the river area, and the explosion of modernist buildings around Greenwich Peninsula, we really did regret not having taken more of an opportunity to explore the capital when it actually was a lot easier. Now, a journey of four hours seems nothing. Previously, it seemed like such a long time to spend in a car. How your perspective can change!

We spent a good few hours just walking, taking it all in – and I even persuaded my other half, who has a very real fear of heights, to do a round trip on the Emirates Air Line, which crosses the River Thames between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks. I thoroughly enjoyed my aerial view of London. Not too sure about him…

Body language. Arms folded. Steely, fixed expression. *I am not enjoying this*

The Emirates Air Line, Greenwich

Beautiful facade of Ravensbourne University, next to the O2 Arena

It was a shame the next day that we couldn’t extend our touristy trip of London, but we had to head north to Manchester. Instead of skirting around the M25, we decided to do a drive through the city and so were able to see some old haunts, as we drove through Deptford, Bermondsey, Southwark and over Tower Bridge to the north of the river. We’d wanted to get to see The Cutty Sark, The Royal Observatory, The Naval College and of course, a bit of retail therapy at Greenwich Market, but time was against us.

Tower Bridge, London

However, our taste for London has returned. Now that our preferred way to get back to the UK is by driving, we’ll factor in a capital visit next time. Especially as I’ve now got my eye on The Good Hotel – the concept of which is described on the website as combining…

…premium hospitality with doing good for the local community. The hotel is located in the historical Royal Victoria Docks in London, on the river Thames, and is a profit for non-profit business. This means it employs a social business model that re-invests all its profits…