Archive for the ‘Holiday’ Category

Gone potty

In Florida, Holiday, theme park, Travel on June 8, 2012 at 10:45 am

It’s taken three months to find the time to post about my long-awaited trip to Florida to visit the  Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Mainly because whenever I try to write about it, I am consumed with misery that I’m not racing around in the Florida sunshine any longer.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that for someone in their 30s, my passion for Potter is borderline peculiar, but luckily for me, Adam’s just as much of a geek and was every bit as keen to head Stateside to see what they’d made of the phenomenon.

Naturally, my expectations were too high, but as I was reminded, there’s only a certain amount of space available to create this magical world, and the team at Islands of Adventure, where WWOHP is located, have really thrown themselves into the project to create a jaw-dropping experience.

As we’d booked with Virgin Holidays, we were awarded early entrance to the WWOHP on our first day, and as such, we were the first car parked in the epic multi-storey network that plays host to the Universal and IOA parks’ guests every day. At 8am, we joined the other privileged guests to race through Islands of Adventure to get access to the corner of the park dedicated to Potter and pals. On strolling through the arch, beneath the Hogsmeade sign, we entered a whole new world.

With Hedwig’s Theme playing in the background as the glistening snow-capped crooked shop-lined street beckoned, we were greeted by the sight of the gleaming scarlet Hogwarts Express, before wandering past Zonko’s, packed with quirky treats and japes, Honeydukes, home to hundreds of sweet and unusual confections, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head before finally arriving in the shadow of Hogwarts castle itself to ride the signature Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride – one of the most popular in all of the state’s theme parks.

Entering Hogsmeade

The Hogwarts Express

Cauldron shopping…


I’m not going to spoil the ride, it’s surely best to experience something like this with no idea what to expect. But what did impress me is the effort that the creators have gone to to make the waiting time less of a chore. Queues for the ride can reach two hours in peak season, but that’s possibly the only way you’d get to experience all of the wonderful surprises… mandrakes in the greenhouses, a greeting from Dumbledore, an argument between the talking portraits and a pre-ride warning from the Sorting Hat. We rode the Forbidden Journey around six times during our holiday and every time we seemed to spot something new.

The other rides at the attraction are the Dragon Challenge – spiralling and looping Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball dragon coasters, and the Flight of the Hippogriff, for younger riders. But fantastic as the rides are, it’s Hogsmeade itself that proves such a draw for visitors…

Honeydukes is a colourful, swirling shop packed with Fizzing Whizzbees, Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (Adam has since eaten an entire packet and confirms that alongside the cherry, cinnamon and apple you will unfortunately stumble across earwax, dirt, pepper and, I kid you not, vomit), all in perfect packaging. The queues are long but browsing is an endless joy. Zonko’s sees visitors stocking up on extendable ears and pygmy puffs while at Dervish and Bangs and Filch’s Emporium you’ll find entire school uniforms, house robes and scarves, as well as a range of T shirts and tri-wizard championship shirts.

The longest queue by far is for Ollivander’s wand-shop, a tiny little store which only holds around 20 people at a time, all of whom watch as Ollivander invites a would-be witch or wizard forward to allow their wand to choose them – crashes, bang, music and lights make the experience really enjoyable and I met one little girl who queued four times before she was finally called forward to find her wand. To be clear – I was a bit narked in my geek way, because as we all know, Ollivander’s isn’t in Hogsmeade, it’s in Diagon Alley.

Every Flavour Beans

Talk of sweet treats brings us, of course, to Butterbeer; the drink of choice for young wizards. WWOHP does a roaring trade in Butterbeer, both in the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head, as well as on olde worlde style carts in the street. The flavour is as sickly sweet as you can imagine – think Cream Soda that coats your teeth, with a whipped topping, but everywhere you turn, someone’s sipping a flagon of it. Possibly because JK Rowling put the kibosh on the ‘land’ selling Coke, Pepsi or other fizzy drinks. That said, there is also a frozen variety, which tastes like melted vanilla ice-cream and is infinitely preferable, apart from the brain-freeze.

The food served in the pub isn’t too bad at all – massive sharing platters or English style meals of pasties, salad and chips and fish and chips, all served at wooden tables in the cool, darkened interior as a welcome escape from the sun.

The Three Broomsticks

The Hog’s Head


While I could easily have advised on acres and acres of attractions based on the series of novels, I managed to keep my expectations in check and marvelled at some of the attention to detail. Amongst the other details at the theme park are the performances by the Hogwarts choir – accompanied by their over-sized animatronic frogs – the graceful ladies of Beaxbatons Academy and the young men at Durmstrang. With various photo opportunities with them, as well as chances to have your picture taken with Sirius Black’s ‘Wanted’ poster and the Hogwarts Express conductor, it’s a veritable holiday album in itself.

The piece de resistance for me though was finding out, when I went to the bathroom, that the creativity team haven’t missed a trick and that Moaning Myrtle’s gurgling babble keeps you company throughout – something I’d hoped they’d think of. I was saddened that they hadn’t incorporated more of the series, and it seems mad not to have lookalikes not strolling the street for photo opps – elsewhere in IOA you can have your snap taken with the Green Goblin or Spiderman after all, but I guess the main masked characters are Death Eaters, so it might be a little too much for younger visitors.

I wonder how many years it’ll be before the conventions start here as the Star Wars ones have at Disney, and fans descend every year for the chance to have their snaps taken with cast members and everyone from Fang and Buckbeak to Crabbe and Goyle – if only that actor hadn’t taken it upon himself to start smoking pot and get involved in the riots; he might just have been made for life…

I’ve also seen that plans are afoot to expand the world, but this time, in the neighbouring Universal Studios park – with concept drawings showing a plan to replace jaws with Gringotts Bank and other attractions. Perhaps Diagon Alley will be based in US and Hogsmeade will remain in IOA.

That’s sure to take several more years, so there may be more theme park holidays in the offing. Either way, my tickets are booked for next February, with the whole family in tow this time. I just hope they can keep up.

The Sorting hat sees you off…

For the greater good

In Christmas, decorating, Holiday, home, Travel on December 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm

This time tomorrow, I should be sipping Champagne in Hamburg. The boyfriend and I booked it a couple of months ago as a reward for working so hard that we hardly see one another. Neither of us have ever been to Germany before, and following rave reviews from my uncle and brother, we decided a pre-Christmas festive break was in order. We planned to peruse the markets, eat and drink, enjoy the snow (snow has a place on winter holidays) and generally enjoy some time away from our iPhones, Blackberrys and emails.

Unfortunately, what we hadn’t allowed for when we booked our flights was the fact that we’re be neck-deep in plasterdust, sawdust and paint fumes. The idea of taking four days out to enjoy a city break and to return to a home that still needs so much TLC is simply unthinkable, so we’ve cut our losses and agreed that we’ll put all thoughts of Christmas markets and gluhwein out of our minds in favour of varnish, emulsion and gloss.

Maybe next year...

I’m telling myself that it’ll all be worth it, but right now, I’m struggling to see that it will.

Living the Langham Life part 2

In fashion, Holiday, Hotels, London, shopping, Travel on September 23, 2011 at 10:45 am

The best thing about the Langham, better than the crystal glasses in the bedrooms, the branded mineral water, the luxurious complimentary toiletries, better even than the enamelled pink and gold pens (I won’t nick stuff from a hotel so was so chuffed when they gave me one to keep!), was the bed. The gigantic super-kingsize bed was easily the best I’ve ever slept in. Comfortable enough for me, with my rigid agenda, to consider abandoning the whole of Sunday’s plan in favour of just lying in its cloud-like loveliness until checkout.

I didn’t though. Instead, we hot-footed it to South Kensington for breakfast, then visited the V&A museum. Again, a magnificent building with superb details that have you wandering around with your head spinning, the museum has more than 2 million pieces in its collections. Through Asia, China and the Islamic Middle East, we moved onto the cast courts of Europe, the Medieval and Renaissance, Raphael and sculpture collections, before heading to theatre and performance. Here, we visited famous costumes and the temporary Annie Lennox’s House exhibition, celebrating her music, her costumes and her humanitarian work.

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Ridicule is nothing to be scared of...

From ’80s glam we moved on to sacred silver and stained glass, gold, silver and mosaics, and jewellery. The jewellery collections were my favourite – a vast, glittering, dimly-lit collection including emeralds worn by Napoleon’s wife Josephine. The plethora of richly-coloured precious stones, diverse shapes and sizes of the pieces, and rich heritage surrounding them only compounded my desire to go and see the Crown Jewels on my next visit.I was disappointed to see that the fashion exhibition is closed until spring 2012, but it’s another excuse to visit. The beautiful John Madejski Garden is a gorgeous retreat in the centre of the museum, the perfect spot to enjoy a drink by the fountain to break up the tour, and inevitably the viisit ended with a browse in the V&A shop, packed with fabulous cards, souvenirs, crafts and gifts. I’d been pretty determined not to buy anything if I could avoid it on this trip but I was inspired by the jewellery collection to buy a pair of violet shimmering drop earrings – they may not be as dazzling as Josephine’s emeralds but they’re quite sparkly enough for me – and a Christian Lacroix journal…I do like my snazzy stationery.

A short stroll down the road inevitably leads to Harrods, where we had plans. First, inevitably, came the scout around the Food Halls, admiring the stunning chocolates, the biscuits, teas coffees, olives and ice creams, before heading to the fourth floor and the sophisticated Georgian Restaurant, where we closed our trip with a decadent afternoon tea. Finger sandwiches, scones, green-apple macaroons, raspberry frangipan, fresh fruit tart, afternoon fruit cake and chocolate slices, served with specially blended teas and champagne… it was absolute bliss, and a real high to end on before trooping back to Euston.


It’s very difficult to keep a promise to yourself not to buy clothes when you’re in one of the fashion capitals of the world, but that’s intensified somewhat when you’re there during London Fashion Week and every single shop has pulled all the stops out to put together alluring shop-fronts to entice you inside. I did hold firm, and – apart from my V&A earrings, journal and some Harrods biscuits – I didn’t indulge. I didn’t even set foot into a clothes shop despite Adam trying to pull me into French Connection every time we passed it and I gasped with desire for the gorgeous coat in the window.

You can imagine my chagrin on returning when I discover that, not only is the coat far less expensive than I thought, but it’s also called The London Coat, and is a limited edition piece to mark London Fashion Week. If that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was. Let’s see how strong my willpower really is…


We’re already planning our next weekend of decadence and culture. Next time, maybe we’ll stay at a Travel Lodge, and we will go shopping!

Living the Langham Life – part 1

In food, Holiday, Hotels, London, Travel on September 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

Last weekend Adam treated me to a luxurious weekend in London as my birthday surprise. While that might not sound so special, after all, we’ve all been to London, what’s so great?, we really went to town. For a start, Adam had booked one of the city’s grandest hotels, The Langham, for our stay. I’d never been to The Langham before and from the moment we arrived, admiring its chic, classy interior with its luxurious furnishings, marble pillars and pink and gold livery, it felt like we were in a fairy tale. Located at the top of Regent Street, it was also a perfect base to reach the rest of London, and with a strict schedule and a travel card, we were armed to see and do.

I’m not great at relaxing. I’m a nightmare on weekends away as I’ll draw up an itinerary that doesn’t allow for lingering or toilet breaks, so we wanted to get the balance right between making the most of the visit and chilling out. One of my favourite places in London is Covent Garden and we chose to go their first to browse the markets, enjoy the sounds and smells and have lunch, before heading to South Kensington to visit the museums. To my shame, while I’ve been to London more times than I can count, I’ve never visited the V&A or the Natural History Museum. I wish I had sooner, and I’m glad I have now – the history museum is superb. I loved the mix of entertainment vs information – something to keep everyone happy, whatever their age, whatever their reason for visiting. There’s a common belief that it’s little boys who have a fascination with dinosaurs, but that’s unfair – I defy anyone not to be awe-struck at the skeletons, models, fossils and information the museum shares. Moving through mammals and fish (I gave the reptiles a miss) it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, and what struck me as most impressive of all, was that it was free. Tne Museum of Natural History in New York costs around $20 a person, so to have this wealth of culture at your fingerips for the price of a discretionary donation is a great asset – well done London, you’ve done us proud.

By the time I left the museum I’d realised that wearing my never-worn before Reiss boots was a massive error of judgment. Suggesting we stroll up the Kings Road for coffee, having forgotten how long the Kings Road is when your toes are mangled, was another.

The evening saw me kick off the cursed boots in favour of sparkly shoes for an exciting evening – cocktails in the Langham’s exquisite Artesian bar, followed by Thriller Live at The Lyric Theatre, followed by dinner at The Criterion Restaurant.

The Alice In Wonderland


The mixologists in the Artesian Bar really are masters of their trade – it’s probably why the bar won the World’s Best Cocktail Menu accolade. I’d already chosen by cocktail before I left home, selecting the Alice in Wonderland – created to celebrate the famous novel first published in 1865, the same year that The Langham opened its doors to London’s high society. Made up of Bombay Saphire with peach meringue and fresh lemon, the drink is a sweet and sour sensation, and was served with a coating of rose salt – pink scented salt that coated the glass, adding a whole new flavour. I LOVED it.

I also loved Thriller Live. Whatever you may have thought of Michael Jackson’s personal life (for the record, I believe that he was merely thevictim of poor advice given by greedy associates who cared more about the bottom line than his health or reputation), you can’t fail to know, and most probably enjoy, his music. While I was never a big fan of the J5 or the Off The Wall era, Thriller and Bad formed a massive part of my youth, and I just hoped that the production would include Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal – my all-out favourites. And I was NOT disappointed. A stellar cast of singers and dancers brought MJ’s catalogue to life once more, with glittering costumes, audience participation and the kind of abilities that can only have been honed after days and days and days of watching, learning and replicating his work.

The outstanding performance of the night was without question Smooth Criminal – where the various ‘Jackons’ all took to the stage and were so, so good at performing the various layers of the song that I couldn’t work out which one was singing which part. What was clear though, was that the Jackson not singing was the one leaning, twitching, grabbing, moonwalking, and essentially bringing that entire gangster persona to life.

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You could just see the audience shuffling their feet, desperate to get into Leicester Square and have a bash at moonwalking again – heads up, if you couldn’t do it when you were 14, you won’t be able to do it now. And while the encore – that glittering single white glove appearing through the darkness, followed by the opening beats to Billie Jean and the steps lighting up with each step – didn’t quite top the moonwalking gangster performace, it was pretty close.

It goes without saying, my tootsies didn’t get the reprieve they’d been hoping for.

Post-theatre supper at the fabulous Criterion restaurant is a treat – and an affordable one when you choose from their set menu – tasty moules mariniere, salmon in chive beurre blanc with sauteed samphire, and strawberries and cream with meringue and basil granite were all delightful and light enough, before a stroll back up Regent Street to ‘home’. New York has the status of the city that never sleeps, but I love London for the same reason. You’re never on your own.

Feet screaming for mercy, and contact lenses itching, we ought to have called it a night there and then, but, with that fantastic bar standing between us and our room? Can you blame us?

My nightcap of choice was the Russian Spring Punch – fresh berries with Snow Queen vodka, fresh lemon and Creme de Casis served long and topped up with champagne. Every bit as luxurious and delicious as it sounds.

And with that, I curled into my bed – made of clouds and big enough to sleep four men – and gave my feet the sweet relief they’d been craving for the past 12 hours…


In decorating, Holiday, home, Italy, New York, party, shopping, Uncategorized on August 28, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I’ve developed a new obsession. I’ve moved on from shoes, bags and earrings to wallpaper, colour-charts and cushions – albeit temporarily. I’ve officially declared war on The Boy’s House.

Since I moved in last year, I’ve cleaned out the cupboards (six-year-old salad dressing, anyone?), streamlined the shelves and introduced my Rosanna Bowles espresso cups and my martini glasses, but desperate times call for desperate measures and it’s time to go the whole hog and start from scratch. The outdated, and frankly hideous odd peach walls in the sitting room and kitchen (in his defence, a throwback from before he moved in) will soon be a thing of the past, and I can’t wait.

Unfortunately, our sitting room is a hotchpotch of nasty artex and dado rails, so naturally we’ve had to commission the services of a plasterer to give us the smooth canvas we need before I can let loose with my shades of caramel, coffee and teal and start layering textures. Man, plasterers are expensive – top tip kids, don’t bother going to university, learn a trade and you’ll be quids in.

So, as soon as the plaster is dry, I can choose my cool colourscheme, and then get stuck into the actual fun part – namely, choosing the cushions, fireplace, lamps and picture frames, before moving onto the next room – the bedroom.

Too much to ask?

I’m having daily rows about my need for a dressing table – I’ve long coveted Sindy’s dressing table and don’t think it’s unreasonable to want somewhere to store my perfume bottles and jewellery, and to be able to sit and do my hair and make-up in peace, is it? Add to that my desire for plush damson bedding and beautiful mirrors and accessories – oh, and a chandelier – to complete my boudoir, and I think I might have my work cut out.

It WILL happen

Sadly, the kitchen is a bigger, longer-term plan (largely because I’m not prepared to forego a holiday in favour of the house), but I have an interim plan to turn our sun-trap conservatory (plus side: beautiful space, negative points: scorching in summer, frostbite-inducing in winter) into a more usable space, after all, it’s such a waste to simply use it for plants and laundry drying, with bistro-style table and chairs, inspired by the gorgeous little coffee shops we visited in Italy, while updating the kitchen in cool retro kitsch style (again, I feel this needs to be done while Adam is out to avoid interferance.)

  I’ve picked out the styles, influences and trimmings that I want, and in a truly grown up way, resisted buying lamps and cushions until we’re done, other than having bought the fab blocked mirror we fell in love with in Dwell (note – it’s big we have to have it a different way up than planned) and a fantastic canvas of the Manhattan skyline to remind us of the great holiday we enjoyed in New York. But I’m always looking…

That said, if it’s not done by Christmas, I shall be most unhappy, since we’ve inadvertantly committed to making Christmas dinner for around 16 people. What?? We’ve discussed having a Christmas or New Year party this year, which is a whole new thing for me to get obsessive about, so it’s vital that I get Project H out of the way before developing a new obsession. Expect posts about canapes and guest lists in around three months (and hope to God we don’t host Christmas lunch, I can’t cope with that level of pressure.)

Bikini ready

In diet, food, gym, health, Holiday, Italy, Travel on July 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Well, it’s finally arrived. My summer holiday’s been booked for six months and this time tomorrow I’ll be basking beside the pool in Tuscany. Blissssssss. The past six weeks have been very tough – a strict eating regime (with a few lapses, I confess), trying to service all of my clients, do the holiday packing and do the 200km a week I told myself I’d do to achieve my goal weight.

And what do you know? I’ve done it – jobs all finished, invoices sent, suitcases packed, suncream bought, and a stone in weight lost – admittedly half my holiday clothes are now too big but I’ve been delighted at the  ‘new clothes buying’ part of it all, there’s a definite thrill to having to put back all the 10s and enjoy slipping into the 8s rather than squeezing into them.

Of course, two weeks of bread, pasta, cheese and oceans of wine will no doubt see the pounds pile back on a damn sight faster than they shifted. I’ve made the provisions – I’ve handed in notice at my gym, much as I loved it, because 25 miles is too far to travel there and back – 40 minutes each way, blus the two-hour workout, is taking its toll – and have signed up to a new one, so that when I get back with the post-holiday blues, I’m set to get right back on track.

I have packed my trainers and some gym gear – I’ve pledged to attempt some running with The Boy while I’m on holiday – but given that he’s in training for his third marathon and I despise running with a passion, I fear it may not end well, and will more likely see me lying on a lilo waiting for him to return from his all-terrain adventure.

Nontheless, it’s been all too long in coming, and I’m looking forward to ditching the scales for a fortnight and concentrating on which cheese to try.


Retail resistance

In fashion, Holiday, shopping, Travel, Uncategorized on January 15, 2011 at 11:37 am

I’m struggling…

Two weeks have passed since I pledged not to buy any clothes until the end of February. I realise now that the key to this is wearing a blindfold at all times.

It began because I have a £79 credit note from Phase Eight (from one of the returned new year’s eve rejected dresses) so I thought: ‘Free money. Must be spent.’

Sadly, the goods I’ve come across come to around five times that, kicking off with this fabulous ensemble:

Look how cosy. Look how pretty. Look how practical.

Unfortunately, I fear that my dreams of looking like this stunner would be left in tearful tatters given that I’m not 6ft and oh-so-slender. Plus, I keep telling myself, I can’t use my credit note online anyway…

However, one website leads to another, and after falling for a cute and very wearable top on, which is barely an extravagant expense, especially in light of the 15% limited time discount the site’s offering, I wavered, but so far have insisted to myself that it would, nontheless, be cheating to indulge.

And from there, it was just a hop, skip and a jump away to Next, where I found these infinitely less practical and less seasonally appropriate dresses: a white, floaty maxi dress which I think epitomises effortless chic on a balmy summer evening (yes alright, probably not in this country, and my thoughts will stray to holidays pretty soon…), a shorter, sexy, summery little number covered in butterflies for special nights out, and a stylish layered LBD that would look amazing with the OTT Louboutins that Adam bought me for Christmas.

And now, how I long for them…

monochrome chic

layered and lovely

floaty and flirty

Sigh… time to step away from the computer…

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!

Time for a Taste of Tuscany

In Holiday, Italy, random thoughts on July 29, 2010 at 9:55 am

It’s that time of year again, my favourite time. The time when I flit between frantic exercising/dieting and staring at my reflection in the mirror going: ‘But why do I look so crap? I am trying so hard!’

Yes, it’s holiday time, and holidays wouldn’t be holidays unless I put myself through the awful pressure of needing/wanting to lose a stone in a fortnight when I know damn well that my body isn’t made to be half a stone slimmer.

It’s not helped by knowing I am going to come home fatter – we’re heading to Tuscany, land of olive oil, pasta, wonderful breads, cheeses, Prosecco and wines…mouth watering already. So even if I do persevere with my no bread no alcohol no sugar no fun diet for the next two weeks, I’m still going to expand like a puffer-fish within two days.

Me in my maxi dress

So in some respects, why bother? My diet is not aided by my recent discoveries of two wonderful Midlands businesses: Kiss Me Cupcakes and Cherry Sprinkes, both of whom create the most exquisite, cost effective and delightful cup-cakes imaginable. I blame both of them for my new addiction.

Delicious mid-morning/afternoon/night snacks courtesy of Kiss Me Cupcakes

I’m hoping to offset the icing with a lot of walking – I want to explore Pisa and Florence as well as spashing around in the pool with my little cousin. I’ve got about 15 days until D(eparture) Day and am on a mission to feel more minnow than whale-like in my bikini.

There’s no room for error or over-packing this time; we’re flying RyanAir, so obviously space is precious and I’ve had to explain to my shoes that I have to travel light and they can’t all come along for the ride. I guess the packing nightmare will be next week’s concern…

Here comes summer (allegedly)

In health, Holiday, shopping on June 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

We enjoyed a good four days of dazzling sunshine the week before last – glorious baking sun that beat down on us and gave great numbers of us red-raw shoulders and strap-marks because, so unused to it as we are, we underestimate the power of the British Sunshine.

Obviously, it’s since done a runner but we’re promised it’ll come back out to play this weekend. I am, for once, ready for it. I don’t know if I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I doubt it, I think like anyone, I just feel happier when the days are longer and lighter and I am taking care of myself.

The past year has been a rough one on every level and it has taken months for me to work out what I want to do with my future. Having only recently plucked up the courage to start following my heart and head and not just take the easy way out, I have exchanged one lot of stresses for another, but feel better for it despite the inevitable uncertainity of it all.

I’ve always known that the best way for me to channel stress is to exercise, but I’ve struggled to fit it in. Until May 1, which I’d set as my own D Day to quit whining and start doing.

Having undertaken a two-month project in the East Midlands earlier this year, my visits to the gym had been fairly scarce and I was determined to reacquaint myself with it, and on May 1st, I did. I combined my daily visits with the much-promoted Special K diet – you’ve never seen so many cereal boxes – eating various kinds for breakfast and lunch, and then enjoying my usual evening meals; be they at Pizza Express, Ask, La Tasca (I’ve become obsessed with vouchers) or made by my own fair hand, and I am happy to say that one month on, I feel better, am more toned and am fitting into clothes I’ve not worn in many a month.

That’s pretty much clinched it for me. Between gyming regularly, managing my own time, eating to suit myself, and meeting up with friends more regularly, either to do various combat, pump and spin classes (followed by a sauna and a gossip of course) or just to indulge in food, wine and banter, I feel better than I have in around 18 months.

With the promise of a summer holiday in a few weeks time, I have the incentive to keep at it. I’ve bought a fab maxi dress as a ‘hey, well done on month one’ gift to myself, and it’s pretty snug…

Here’s hoping I do well enough in month two to buy the wedge sandals I’ve seen to match it!