Category Archives: Italy

Italia Quattro: Lombardy

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Having previously posted a blog in 2013 about our trip to Switzerland (Cœur des Alpes), it was remiss of me not to complete the story. Since – following our time in the Alps – we had continued into northern Italy for a few days in the Italian Lakes. I am righting that wrong now. It helps that I have plenty of time on my hands, stuck as I am nursing a painfully-situated (ahem) hematoma. The result of a tumble down our stairs. Given it doesn’t seem to be subsiding, I’ve succumbed to a couple of duvet days. Writing this felt marginally more productive than continuing to binge-watch Riverdale.

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So… After a last breakfast on our glorious hotel terrace in Zermatt, we got the train back to Täsch, retrieved our hire car and drove through the stunning mountain and valley scenery to Stresa, a small town on the shore of Maggiore. La Palma, a grande dame of a hotel, is situated right across the road from the main promenade, and we spent our first afternoon getting our bearings, strolling in the sunshine, and lunching in the main square: Piazza Cadorna. As the sun set, a refreshing swim, followed by a stint in the rooftop jacuzzi and a poolside cocktail was a fantastic prelude to a delicious meal in town at Lo Stornello and a drink (or three) at what was to become our favourite wine bar, Al Buscion. I distinctly remember thinking, as I walked home hand-in-hand with Paul along the shore, listening to the lapping water and swaying slightly from the bottiglia di vino rosso, that I am incredibly lucky indeed. I don’t ever want to be complacent or think otherwise.

IMG_4327The next day, we jumped on a boat to the Borromean Islands in the middle of the lake. Isola Bella, our first stop, is home to an imposing palazzo, majestic gardens and a cute fishing village. And, more importantly, the most beautiful white peacocks you’ve ever seen (check out some photos in my ‘Cocks & ‘Hens post). We spent hours exploring the tiered Italianate gardens, stalking the birds and enjoying views across the lake, stopping to find shade whenever possible. There were also plenty of water lilies to divert my attention…as I realised when I edited my photos back in England! The second island – Isola Madre – is bigger but much quieter and, in my view, less impressive. After a speedier look around Palazzo Borromeo and the pretty Giardini Botanici, we boarded the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, our final stop. “Fishermen’s Island” is the only one of the three still inhabited and has a gentle yet bustling vibe. We ate a very late seafood lunch on the shoreside terrace of the family-run Trattoria Imbarcadero and visited the church of San Vittore, before returning to our hotel for a well-earned siesta by the rooftop bar. Paul discovered the joys of floating his glass of beer in the pool, whilst I read under the canopy of lemon trees and admired the sun setting over the islands we’d spent the day exploring.

Lake Orta was our destination the following day, the route ably navigated by Paul, a comfortable continental driver by this point in the trip. We’d read about Orta in a magazine article that had promised a “hidden gem”, a pleasing counterpoint to Maggiore. And we weren’t disappointed. IMG_0807The Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they consider it the secretly superior sibling to the larger neighbouring lakes. It gets far fewer visitors and the main town – Orta San Giulio – is a gentle, authentically homely place. The lake has always been popular with writers – in the 19th century, Nietzsche, Byron, Samuel Butler, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all spent time there, and poets still visit from around the globe for inspiration. It’s steep, elegant streets invite exploration, and the 21 chapels of St Francis are certainly worth the short pilgrimage. Of course, you must also cross to St Julian’s Island. We ate lunch at the island’s only restaurant, Ristorante San Giulio, a somewhat disappointing meal but worth it to admire the ceiling frescoes and to sit on the vine-covered lakeside terrace. Captive audience. A single path leads you round the circumference of the island, skirting the vast Benedictine monastery, a journey you are encouraged to take in silence. Meditative signs line the route, beseeching quiet reflection. It is a wonderfully peaceful experience. By the time we left, the golden hour light casting enchanting shadows on the villas that line the shore, I sighed happily as we sailed back to the town. Another trip to Al Buscion and a far tastier meal of chargrilled squid followed by ravioli swimming in sage butter rounded off a pretty perfect day.

IMG_2466The final couple of days of our trip were spent in the brasher, but still attractive, Como. We stayed in the Air BnB apartment of artist Walter Riva, a warren of rooms filled with ethnographic objet and photographs hung from string criss-crossing the walls (long before it became fashionable). A great little place, which I’d highly recommend – if he’s still letting the space. The little alleys were, however, stifling in the summer heat, and after a brief walk and too much wine at the delightful Osteria del Gallo I became dehydrated and had to rest back at the flat. Recuperated, we then managed to enjoy the old town properly and visit the impressive Duomo. Como is larger and more cosmopolitan that the other towns we’d stayed in, and I personally found it less seductive as a result. My impression probably not helped, admittedly, by the abrupt change in weather at the end of our stay. Grey clouds rolled in and our boat trip on the lake was marred by drizzle. Still, my mood was lifted by an amazing evening meal (isn’t it always?) at Ristorante Cibooooh on Via Adamo del Pero. Octopus with purple potato and pickled fennel, followed by perch risotto. Yum, yum, yum. Will just have to return one day to give Como a second chance!

“Sii semplice, sii te stesso”

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Italia Tre: Firenze

Been neglecting this blog of late, so thought I’d do a bit of catching up. Plus, it gives me something to do on a wet bank holiday! Nothing I like better than sorting through, editing and categorising photos. And, actually, when it’s been a while since a trip, I also enjoy the research that is inevitably required to jog my memory. You wouldn’t think that would be needed for a long-weekend in Florence, taken as recently as last autumn…but my brain cells are clearly not what they used to be!

IMG_0793What certainly took no recollecting was the amazing sandwich shop All’Antico Vinaio, just around the corner from our Air BnB apartment on Via dei Neri. The queues for panini can be a little ridiculous, but – wow – those full-to-bursting lunch snacks are definitely worth the wait. Tip: you may want to share one between two. The shop is only a stone’s throw from Piazza della Signoria, one of the main squares in the city and a popular meeting point for local Florentines. Amongst the numerous statues and sculpture in the square, you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s David, the four cardinal virtues (Fortitude, Temperance, Justice and Prudence) by Agnolo Gaddi in Loggia dei Lanzi, Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, and the more modern giant bronze turtle by Jan Fabre. As well as being a perfect place to hang out eating focaccia, the piazza has sights to explore, foremost among them Palazzo Vecchio – the fortified structure with it’s much-photographed clock tower. Definitely worth a visit for the frescoes, ceilings and views. A hop-skip-and-a-jump and you’re at the Uffizi Gallery, filled with treasures from the Medici family and priceless works of fine art. I’ve got to admit, the Uffizi doesn’t feature at the top of my personal ranking of the world’s best galleries – it’s too busy and features too many works by ninja turtles for my liking. But, having said that, I could have stood looking at Boccaccino’s Zingarella for a long time…far superior to the Mona Lisa (imho).

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Another day saw us concentrating on the numerous sights in Piazza del Duomo, home of Florence’s gothic cathedral. The enormous Santa Maria del Fiore stands tall over the city, with its magnificent renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. We, of course, climbed to the top of the cupola – what self-respecting tourist wouldn’t? And you have to get up close to fully appreciate Vasari’s disturbing fresco of the Last Judgement on the inside the dome. It’s a really exceptional building and – another tip – if you buy a timed ticket for the dome, you get to jump the queue. The combined pass will also get you into the museum, Giotto’s Tower, and the sublime Baptistery of St. John. The octagonal baptistery was built over the ruins of a roman temple dedicated to Mars and dates back to the 4th century A.D. The ceiling inside is breathtaking, but it is the enormous gold doors with their intricate reliefs of the Passion, including Ghiberti’s famous Gates of Paradise, that people flock to see. You know how much I like a good door! And whilst we’re on the topic of religious buildings, I would also recommend visiting the Basilica de Santa Croce and the wonderful San Miniato al Monte with its green and white marble, dark crypt and beautiful 12th century mosaic.

IMG_41551After all this sightseeing, you’ll want to head to Piazzale Michelangelo for a stunning sunset view over the city. Yes, it’s full of tourists and overpriced cafes. But there’s a reason for that…the view really doesn’t disappoint! And now seems to be a good time to talk food. Don’t eat up at the viewpoint, when there are so many amazing places in the city. We really enjoyed Mercato Centrale, with its numerous food stalls and restaurants. The truffle pappardelle and wild boar tagliatelle are both delicious local staples. We also ate one night in a lovely seafood restaurant, Fishing Lab Alle Murate on Via del Proconsolo. But you can’t go to Florence without trying Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the to-die-for rare T-Bone steak from the local chianina cattle. We had ours at Le Fonticine on Via Nazionale, a superb family run restaurant dating back to 1939. Which made a pretty good setting for my dad’s 60th birthday treat. However, whilst I usually make a point of trying all local delicacies and am not usually squeamish when it comes to food, I drew the line at lampredotto (tripe). No. No, thank-you kindly.

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I will finally mention the other side of the Arno river, where the impressive Pitti Palace can be found. The vast renaissance palazzo, a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio, is certainly worth a visit. There was also a Karl Lagerfeld exhibition on when we visited, which was an added bonus. However, unless you’re in the mood for a hike around pretty barren terrain, I wouldn’t necessary recommend the Boboli Gardens. We may have been unlucky – maybe all the gardeners and fountain mechanics had just come back from an extended strike. But otherwise: could-try-harder.

All-in-all, though, a wonderful weekend of culture, food and sunshine. Definitely ticked all the boxes.

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Italia Due: Sicilia

Buongiorno. Mi chiamo Vix. Piacere! Abito a Londra con mio ragazzo si chiama Paolo. Lavoro in un ufficio. Ho 33 anni. Ho una sorella più si chiama Jennifer e mio nipote si chiama Noah. 

I’m learning Italian. Some of that may not be right. Anyway, on with the blog…

sicily1I have an email saved for posterity that still reduces me to tears of laughter whenever I read it. In the message, my friend Nick lists all the possible places in Europe you can fly to from Edinburgh, going into an incredible amount of detail about times and connections. It’s about two pages long! And this is before we’ve even discussed where we might want to go on holiday. He even suggests – the delirium really taking hold now – that we have the option to pay for a taxi from Edinburgh to Liverpool (an extortionate fare) for a flight in the early hours of the morning…to Liechtenstein, if memory serves. Someone was really in need of a break! After Paul calmly suggested in reply that we might want to pause and compile a short-list of destinations – places, y’know, we might actually want to visit – some semblance of sanity returned.

By way of further explanation, we needed to depart from Scotland because Nick was performing at the comedy festival over August and some of us were visiting him on the final weekend…but I now forget why we couldn’t have just come back to London before flying out. We couldn’t. Just go with it.

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The research fever having subsided, we eventually settled on Sicily, with Laura and Rob finding a great villa in the hills above Taormina, a small town on the east coast of the island. It’s a very well-heeled little place, with plenty of good restaurants and designer shops, a beautiful central piazza, and nice little coves reached by aerial tramway. Tourists tend to visit the town on day trips, primarily to see the Teatro Greco – an impressive ruin with stunning views of the Ionian coastline through crumbling archways – but we found it a great base for a longer stay. The villa was beautiful, with a decent-sized pool, outdoor space for enjoying Laura’s famous aubergine parmigiana, and great views of Mount Etna in the distance. It was a half-hour walk from our villa into town, via a series of steep stone stairways: pleasant but sometimes hard work in the heat. Understandable then, that we tended to need a gelato (or two) at the bottom…and that we invariably hailed a taxi home in the evenings. We did however brave the walk in the opposite direction one evening to Castelmola, a tiny village at the top of the hill. The hamlet has an oversized Duomo and a precipitously perched castle. The walk, I quickly decided, was foolish, as every muscle in my legs protested, but luckily the charming cobbled streets were worth the effort and the bar atop the tower in the main square provided liquid medication.

IMG_4674The weather was fabulous. Hot and sunny every day of the trip. Plenty of opportunity for sunbathing and swimming, at the aforementioned coves in Taormina and at Giardini Naxos, a short bus ride away, and nearby Isola Bella. The unwavering sun also allowed us to eat al fresco every evening, at great places like A’Zammara and Trattoria La Botte, where we had great shellfish and grilled squid (“sea monsters”, according to Nick), delicious arancini and plenty of pasta.

IMG_9784Despite the great setting, we were able – luckily – to pull ourselves away for some amazing sightseeing. The trip up Mount Etna was the highlight for me. And all the more so because our little hire cars survived the journey! Having been forced to unload all of our luggage half way up the hill to our villa on the first night and push the cars, fearful all the while of the increasingly strong smell of burning rubber, we were not at all confident in their ability to make it anywhere, let alone up a 10,890 ft active volcano. But make it they did. Obviously not all the way up…there were cable cars and 4x4s involved too…but we were still quietly proud of them. The mountain itself is breaktaking. In Greek Mythology, the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under it by Zeus, and it certainly looks worthy of the attention of the gods: an imposing, stark, black moonscape with steaming vents and a towering peak that regularly spews forth angry, dark smoke from its depths. Gorgeous!

Another trip saw us kitted out in wetsuits and helmets, body rafting through the frigid waters of the Alcantara Gorge. Many people, having seen the photos on our return, teased that this was no more scary than sitting in a bubble bath, but let me tell you that my bruised butt was testimony otherwise. It was a lot of fun, despite the bumps and panicked submersions. And the cafe at the gorge made the best arancini of the holiday.

gorge4On the final day, Paolo and I took a boat trip to the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. The overcrowded boat wasn’t the most relaxing way to travel, but the spectacular scenery quickly made you forget your sweaty companions. First we sailed past Vulcano, the chimney to the Roman god Vulcan’s workshop; a cute little place with less than five-hundred inhabitants and the perfect backdrop for a refreshing swim.

IMG_4611Next was the well-to-do Lipari, the largest of the islands – with a population of around 12,000 – and studded with beautiful villas. According to Greek mythology, it was home of Aeolus, god of winds, who gave Ulysses a bag of winds to assist him during his ten-year odyssey around the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The longest stop was on Panarea, considered the most stunning of the islands. We pulled into a little harbour and, after a giant bowl of prawns, walked up and around the picturesque town taking dozens of photos of the contrasting white-washed houses against the dark black sand and turquoise sea. I could have stayed there for much longer…but wouldn’t have wanted to miss the pièce de résistance: Stromboli. Still active, Stomboli – which takes up most of the surface of the island – is the only volcano in Europe that permanently erupts. After a walk around the island, observing with note the ominous warning signs about tsunamis (basically, you should run up – not down – the mountain!), we re-boarded the boat at sunset to circumnavigate the island, waiting for the lava to flow. Having almost given up hope, we were eventually treated to an exciting firework-burst of orange and a simultaneous lightning storm…nature at it’s most terrifyingly beautiful.

stromboli2Grazie, in Sicilia. Ci ritorneremo!

Italia Uno: Liguria

Last time I was talking about how much I love London. This week I genuinely saw a woman point to a 6cm2 space near the door of a bulging, sweaty tube of office-bound commuters and exclaim indignantly “Look, there’s plenty of room!” as the doors shut in her face. It’s a wonderful city, no doubt, but sometimes it’s useful to be reminded why it’s important – nay, essential – to escape regularly!  So, this time I return to the theme of weekend breaks

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My good friend and ex-housemate Rob spent a few months teaching English in Sestri Levante in 2006.  The small town in Liguria has become a favourite holiday destination for Italians, with two beaches and lots of nice restaurants, so it was pretty shrewd on his part.  It’s also an area known for pestosay no more, Nick was there.  So one weekend in spring, Steph, Molly, Nick and I boarded an Easyjet flight for Genoa.  I’m not entirely certain now, but I think it was my first Easyjet experience.  I definitely remember thinking what a scrum it was to get on the plane and how terrible the seats were, and given that’s long since failed to surprise, I suspect I was a Stelios virgin at the time (if you excuse my mixed airlines).  I also remember Steph and Molly declaring themselves fearful fliers, and being slightly bemused that Molly showed no signs of being such – chatting animatedly throughout – while Steph left fingernail marks in my hand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving landed in Genoa, we caught a bus to the train station, negotiated the purchase of tickets – revealing our collective ignorance of the language – and travelled onward to the coast.  Rob was sharing a flat on the edge of the town centre and, after picking up his keys and dropping off our stuff, we nipped to the supermarket for provisions.  Nick couldn’t get over how nice the Italian tomatoes were (to become a recurring theme of our stay) and, after a delicious spread of cheeses, hams, bread, olives and fruit, we headed to the beach.  Sestri has two bays: Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fables/Fairy Tales) and Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence) on either side of a peninsula.  It was a little cloudy and only some of us had packed our swimwear, but Nick decided a dip was in order while we waited for Rob to finish work and join us.  Rolling up his jeans, he waded out looking for crabs.  The clothing precautions proved futile, however, as he was soon up to his waist and gave up completely when Rob joined him in the sea.  We got some strange looks from the locals as we headed back to the flat more than a little sodden!

The bars and restaurants are great in Sestri.  It helped, of course, that we had a temporary resident with us, who was now conversant in Italian – particularly the Italian necessary to decipher food and drink menus!  We ate in a great trattoria that night – clam linguine, octopus, musselsand pesto pasta for Nick, of course!

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The next day we got up early and headed to Cinque Terre (‘the Five Lands’).  This gorgeous stretch of coastline, with its five picture-perfect villages, was wisely set up as a protected marine area in 1998 and as a national park in 1999.  It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.  We caught a train to the furthest point, the village of Riomaggiore, where we had lunch at a sweet little trattoria high above the rocky bay.  Branching out, Nick had pesto lasagne.  Sated, we next walked part of the Sentiero Azzurro trail connecting the five villages.  It was a hot day, but there was a nice breeze from the sea, and the walk past the second hamlet – Manarola – and onward to Corniglia, was beautiful.  The trail literally winds along the edge of the cliff, with the clear blue sea below and beautiful flowers and cacti clinging to the rocks.

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Skipping Vernazza, we jumped back on the train to Monterosso while it was still warm and light and spent a couple of hours chilling on the beach.  Monterosso is, in my view, the least picturesque of the five, with the train line running along its front, but it was still a great place to lie with a book and an ice-cream.  The sea was warm too – a lot warmer than the day before in Sestri – and everyone had their bikinis and trunks this time!  We returned to Vernazza for tea, just as the sun was starting to dip and the pretty harbour was bathed in golden light.  I love that time of day, especially when you have the smell of suncream on your skin, salt in your hair, your cheeks are glowing and you’re looking forward to dinner.  We ate in Belforte, a restaurant cut into the cliff, with its tables precipitously perched overlooking the sea.  The food was delicious and we looked out on a stunning orange and pink sunset as we polished off our dessert.  A perfect day!

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The Sunday was spent pottering around the shops and bars in Sestri.  In the evening we ate in a great pizzeria, Steph having now learned how to pronounce the Italian for peach and thus avoiding ordering fish juice for a second time and Nick having learned how to say “definitely no anchovies”.  Our trip ended with cocktails in the rooftop bar of Hotel Vis a Vis, enjoying the great views of the peninsula with the twinkling lights along the coast.  Viva l‘Italia!