Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category


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 The outdated, and frankly hideous odd peach walls in the sitting room and kitchen (in his defence, a throwback from before he moved in) will soon be a thing of the past,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.


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…

City of sighs

In Holiday, Italy on March 24, 2010 at 9:14 am

I’m recently returned from the beautiful floating city of Venice, where I was lucky enough, not only to avoid acqua alta (the high floods that often occur in February), but to experience the spectacular masquerade carnival.

For 10 days, the whole city is heaving with locals and tourists with painted faces, ornate papier mache masks, hats, cloaks and gowns, while the districts explode with sights, sounds, tastes and smells. The carnival was ressurected in 1979 by a group of non-Venetians but is believed to date back to provate members clubs in the 1500s. Whether you believe the modern interpretation has stayed true to its roots or not, the event is a spectacle for the tourist wanting a weeked filled with romance and excitement.

Seeing the traditional cobbled streets, the gentle canals and the beautiful piazzas crammed with colour, fireworks, streamers and performers made the usual sight-seeing considerably more difficult, and this is a city that is busy all year round. But those wanting to soak up the culture and views at the Campanile, Basilica di San Marco and the Torre dell’Orologio might want to wait until the festivities are finished to avoid battling through crowds of thousands.

We felt woefully underdressed and dull surrounded by such flamboyance, something that was instantly compensated for when we bought our own masks and ventured forth into the heaving streets, but the sheer scale of some of the costumes is breathtaking.

Not such an unusual sight during Carnevale

Traditional dress

Not at all posed

Such characters glide around the streets day and night, being stopped every three minutes by tourists keen for photos. We couldn’t get into the world-famous Caffe Florian because it was packed to the chandeliers with folk in traditional costume taking coffee, prosecco and gelato.

To escape the crowds and to soak up some traditional Venetian atmosphere, we took the Vaparetto (water bus, and a very organised way of reaching the different parts of Venice) to the islands of Murano and Burano. Murano, the Glass Island, is filled with shops exhibiting exquisitely crafted glass wares, everything from realistic bowls of cherries to garish, technicolour chandeliers, ropes of beads and life-size aquariums filled with vividly coloured glass fish. Muran glass can be horribly expensive as every piece is unique, so it’s worth shopping around, and there are a number of workshops on the island that allow tourists inside to see the craftsmen blowing glass and creating their masterpieces.

Further on for Murano is Burano, where the canals are lined with candy-coloured houses and the shops all stock tablecloths, parasols, fans and bedspreads made from the locally-produced lace. Burano is well-known for its excellent fish restaurants as this is the island where many of Venice’s fishermen live and the catch of the day is never far away.

Venice has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to food, and I personally think that’s undeserved. It is, however, pretty expensive, so it’s wise to research your menus and choose well to avoid expensive cover charges and hefty bills. If you’re looking for a memorable fine dining experience, try Al CovoDa Fiore or, like us, visit Harry’s Bar, where the Bellini cocktail was invented. Make sure you have plenty of money as a simple risotto starts at  €45. But the food is excellent, it’s well located close to St Mark’s Square, and there’s a reasonable chance of spotting the odd celebrity.

The most beautiful place for me is Rialto, where the famous bridge arcs over a canal ligned with bustling restaurants and shops. This is the perfect place to sit beside the canal, soak up the sunshine, pizza or pasta and a glass of wine and watch the gondolas glide by. A gondola ride is a must for any first-timer to Venice, but again, be warned of the prohibitive expense – expect to pay around €80 for 20 minutes. But in terms of a romantic memory and a photo opportunity, it’s simply unbeatable.

The perfect -albeit expensive - way to travel in Venice

Angels, Demons and grafitti

In Italy, Travel on May 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, drive like a lunatic and take four-hour lunches. And it seems, scrawl in marker pen over every available surface, no matter how sacred.

I digress. I deliberately re-read Angels And Demons before visiting the Eternal City. I (misguidedly, I confess) had hoped to retrace Robert Langdon’s steps and be guided by the angels on my lofty quest. However, I settled for an open top bus and took what I could find.

My hopes of glamming it up a la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday were scuppered due to a small misunderstanding over setting my alarm in the morning. I don’t remember Gregory Peck at any point shouting at Audrey for an error of judgment and maintaining a three-hour stern and crackling silence just because she hauled him out of the shower and gave him four minutes to get dressed and on a coach. No, I do not.

Five hours is not really sufficient time to acquaint oneself with myriad churches and fountains, so I settled for Basilica di San Pietro and St Peter’s Square, peered off the top deck of the bus at the bridge of angels and the Castel Sant’Angelo, and excitedly told Mark about the secret passageway between Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican before the audio guide got chance. He just looked at me with narrow eyes, he hadn’t forgiven me yet, then.

The main objective of my trip had been to see the Trevi Fountain and nothing had prepared me for its size and composition. I had envisaged it as a grand and beautiful fountain in a square, or a park. Not a huge engraved building akin to Buckingham Palace. Completed in 1762, the fountain forms part of the Aqua Virgo viaduct system, and centres around Neptune.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

This picture’s not mine – there was no way I could get far enough away to get it in a frame. The sculptures and detail that made up the enormity of the vast baroque fountain only served to make it the more remarkable. It easily took half-an-hour to fight our way to the front of the fountain, where we cast our coins into the water to secure our return to the city.

Next stop was The Colosseum, the iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. The building, again, is awe-inspiring, and it’s not difficult to imagine the gruesome gladitorial contests, executions, mock sea battles, animal hunts and dramas that it hosted. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people and more than a million animals died in the Colosseum Games.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

The building remains partially ruined, a legacy from devastating earthquakes and stone robbers, but is still breathtaking in its architecture. And there is no shortage of plume-helmetted faux gladiators on hand for a photo opportunity should you wish to reanact your own battle.

The cobbled streets (havoc on the heels), roaring roads, impatient motorists and general sprawling nature of Rome do not make for a relaxing visit, and five hours in no way did justice to the imposing city. But it was terribly blighted by the constant vandalism – sadly not confined to Rome as we later discovered. It is very sad that you can live in one of the most revered and spectacular cities in the world and yet not show it the respect that it really deserves. It seemed everywhere was marred by ugly marker pen; something that is no doubt too costly to clean away as frequently as would be desirable.

I’m hoping that fountain’s true to its promise and I’ll get to return for a longer stay some day soon.

Buried alive and lost for centuries

In Italy, Travel on May 8, 2009 at 10:23 am

I remember, somewhere in the darker recesses of my mind, learning about Pompeii in a classical studies lesson at school. I’d probably forgotten altogether, not thinking I’d ever visit, but when the opportunity to visit a city that was consumed by a volcanic eruption, and then forgotten for 1700 years presents itself, you have to go and see the evidence for yourself.

It was a blisteringly hot day when we visited the site close to Naples. But the heat didn’t prevent the chilling feeling and the goosebumps I experienced on visiting the site. Inside the city walls, away from the bustling souvenir vendors, restaurants and ice cream sellers, there is an eerie calm, which intensifies as you realise that this entire place was a hive of activity with wine and oil merchants, bars and a brothel – where the faintly pornographic frescos remain, tame by today’s standards – until Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying Pompeii beneath 60 feet of ash and pumice and leaving it destroyed and dead, undiscovered until 1748.

While the frescos, the walls and even the giant storage jars used for oil and wine remain intact in some areas, what I wasn’t prepared for was the casts of dead bodies.  When the volcano erupted, the first sensation that gripped the ill-fated residents of Pompeii was the smell of the gases. Though the bones and remains have long since disintegrated, the casts of the bodies, set in pumice, remain. Some face-down on the floor, seeking to protect themselves, others hunched, knees to chest, with their hands over their mouth and nose to shield them from the gases.

Cast of a victim of Mount Vesuvius

Cast of a victim of Mount Vesuvius

To die that way is terrible. But for people to forget about the tragedy for centuries is worse.

The Archaeological Museum in Naples houses more casts of bodies. Anyone who has ever uttered the words “Sometimes I wish I could just curl up and die” when the going gets tough should maybe pay them a visit and be thankful for the luxury of life and of being cared for, for making a difference to someone else’s life.