Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Bella Italia

In Holiday, Italy, shopping, Travel, Uncategorized on August 24, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I am curled up on the sofa in my fleece, hugging my laptop for warmth, recalling that this time last week I was sprawled poolside at Il Fienile, a villa set in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. And I soooo want to be back there. Seven of us; four adults and three kids; headed to the beautifully renovated villa, a former barn in Peccioli for a week of sunshine, splashing, shopping and culture.

We’d had a somewhat bumpy landing at Pisa airport due to an awful storm, and made the 40 minute journey to the villa, through the winding country lanes climbing the hills, in slightly tense conditions – thankfully I wasn’t driving while the sheet lightning, thunder and relentless rain beat down on us as the drivers navigated unfamiliar roads, right-hand-side driving and new cars. Less than 10 minutes before we pulled up, the rain stopped, and – never to be deterred by bad weather – the children (and one adult who probably ought to have known better) enjoyed a midnight swim to kick the holiday off in style.

It was a relief after the stormy arrival to throw the shutters open on day one and be greeted by dazzling blue skies, acres of coutryside views and the sight of the sunshine glittering on the pool like diamonds. An unspoken agreement and general air of ‘I deserve this’ exhaustion saw everyone prone on sun-loungers with cold drinks, books and iPods, soaking up the sunshine, having water-races and reading the following morning. The 15th is Ferregosto, a religious holiday, where Italy pretty much closes down for the day out of respect. Throughout the evening, feasts are held, and we enjoyed a traditional Tuscan feast in the nearby village of Capannoli – savouring melon with parma ham, cheese and cold meats, deliciously fresh pasta pomodoro, prawn salads, pizzas with smoked swordfish, and cinghiale – wild boar; something of a Tuscan delicacy.

Day two saw half of our party head to Sienna for the palio – a bi-annual horse-race that attracts crowds of thousands. While sorry to miss the legendary spectacle, I was thrilled to spend some time with my young cousin Mia, who shows signs of being half-mermaid and practically had to be dredged from the water to eat lunch. The palio would have been no place for a small girl  – vast crowds, scorching temperatures and long waits simply can’t compare to willing playmates, a Hello Kitty lilo and a swimming pool. The event did not pass without incident apparently – scrapping among the riders, a member of the crowd being accidentally impaled by a flag pole… it was all going on and we heard all about it after making supper – somewhat more enjoyable when you’re using fat, locally grown tomatoes, huge, freshly shelled prawns and herbs picked from the garden.

We chose to take a break from basking on our third day and drove to Firenze to soak up the culture, take a peek in the shops, and visit David. David, of course, being the defeator of Goliath, as depicted by Michaelangelo.

Firenze is a gorgeous city, from its Gucci-lined designer streets to Ponte Veccio (the Gold Bridge, so named because it is packed with jewellery shops selling every variety of gold), to the Piazza della Signoria, home to many famous statues including the triumphant Perseus, post Medusa-defeat, and a replica of David, standing outide the Palazza Veccio.

Perseus with the head of the Medusa

 The square is very beautiful but the David here is not to be confused with this one:

The ‘real’ David boasts pride of place in the Accademia Gallery, and is a masterpiece of Rennaissance sculpture, carved by Michaelangelo between 1501 and 1504. David was initially planned to be located high up in the city’s cathedral but was instead located in the Piazza della Signoria, the seat of civic government. It was later moved the the gallery and replaced with a replica.

After a spot of shopping – I am now a fan of AC Fiorentina as opposed to Aston Villa because I liked the colours better – we headed back along FIPILI (the motorway so called because it leads to Firenze, Pisa and Livorne) and into the hills. A delicious dinner, wine and limoncello high up at Castelfalfi was followed by star-gazing, and planning for another day’s sight-seeing.

Day four saw us head for one of the most famous landmarks in the world:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The freestanding belltower, which was intended to stand vertically, began to subside to the south-east shortly after it was built in 1173, though it now leans south-west. It is located in the Piazza del Duomo, where the city’s medieval cathedral is located. The square has since been re-named the Piazza dei Miracoli.

From Pisa we drove onward and upward – high, high upward, long after our ears popped, to explore the beautiful Volterra. At 1770 feet above sea level, the views are spectacular but the drive is daunting. This ancient Etruscan site is a beautiful place to explore with its ancient ampitheatre, its cathedral and its rich heritage for alabaster – beautiful pieces of sculpture, from replicas of David through to the most delicate peaches, crafted from alabaster, are the local speciality. The site is a haven for those keen on Etruscan relics; the Guarnacci  museum is home to an impressive collection.

Keep your eyes peeled for this bunch

Vampire fans: This is the stamping ground of the Volturi, the scary vampire police who pledge (and fail) to destroy the irritatingly self-obsessed Bella. Volterra folk haven’t capitalised on this the way they might have; I was expecting a fair few souvenirs, alternative tours and perhaps the odd pale and interesting whimsical character wandering around with their neck exposed, but no. Perhaps that’s because the Volterra scenes in the New Moon movie weren’t actually shot in Volterra, but in Montepulciano. I know. Who can say?

Day four was another bronzing day, my feet were killing me from all the trekking, so I welcomed the break, and Friday was spent sunning ourselves before heading to a neaby spa for a manicure and a mud wrap. The evening was spent heading high into the hills to visit San Gimignano, a beautiful medeival town filled with towers (this is an old version of keeping up with the Joneses – the more money you had, the higher your tower was), chi chi shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. San Gimignano is also home to Gelataria di Piazza, run by Sergio Dondoli, a member of the Italian ice cream making team who have twice been named winners at the ice cream world championships. I sense a job as a judge coming on.

A medicore meal and dreadful service at a restaurant with a beautiful terrace that really ought to pull its socks up (I wish I could remember what it was called to name and shame) was followed by a trip to the Gelataria to buy dessert. I had Grand Marnier chocolate flavoured ice cream teamed with a scoop of pistachio and OH. MY. GOD. Wouldn’t have bothered with dinner if I’d known, I’d just have worked my way down the menu and tried all the flavours.

And that, I’m afraid, was that. One last jaunt around Lucca, another beautiful old town close to Pisa, more ice cream and a spot of last minute shopping, and it was back to the airport. And here I am. And can I really be blamed if I’m looking into Italian lessons and, truthfully, spending a little too long on looking for my next holiday? A girl has to have something to look forward to!


Buy the book

In book, random thoughts, shopping on August 2, 2010 at 9:38 am

I have been a bit overcome by guilt at the amount of books I have put into storage at my parents’ house because I don’t have room for them. Quite why I think that they have is beyond me.

Yesterday, filled with good intentions, I went to their spare room, AKA my library, and started to sort them, I plan to give some to charity. But there is no getting away from the fact that I have an addiction to books and almost see it as criminal to get rid of them, even if it is to give them to a new home.

I don’t feel I can in all conscience give away the Jane Austens, the Bronte sisters’ work, nor that of Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Marvell, Elliot (both George and T.S) or Woolf. Also, Steinbeck, Orwell both Martin and Kingsley Amis have escaped the cull. Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood formed a big part of my late teens, and as for the Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings or the His Dark Materials trilogy; well, you can forget the idea of me handing those over to anyone.

My chick-lit, I decided, would not be spared the cull. Except for Jane Green of course – in fact, I have bought and hidden her latest work to take on holiday (book cull fail). But I couldn’t part with Marian Keyes’ treasures, nor those of Lisa Jewell or Sophie Kinsella, I know I’ll read them again and again when the mood strikes me… And having bought Dorothy Koomson’s The Ice Cream Girls this weekend, I know I’ll wind up re-reading all of hers this summer, including the heart breaking Goodnight Beautiful which made me cry for a week in Barbados.

So far, I’ve only managed to squirrel away about 30 novels – those that I cannot remember the plots of clearly didn’t make the grade, while some I’ve actually got duplicates of!

Operation Book Cull is very much a work in progress. There are 12 shelves, all stacked back three and four rows deep and crammed to capacity. I expect to rediscover much-loved favourites and toss ones that I didn’t like. I am not thinking about how much cash I must have spent over the past 20 years when my Dad kept saying ‘why don’t you join a library?’

The question is, why didn’t I join a library?