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Ferrara – Italy’s Often Overlooked Gem

January 19, 2017
Ferrara Italy

If you’ve ever taken a trip to Italy, you’ve probably experienced the labyrinthine magic of Venice, the historical mystique of Rome, the sheer beauty of the lakes or maybe just the amazing shopping in Milan. The country is stunning, filled with sights and experiences sure to bring out the romantic in all of us. But nestled in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, on the train line between Venice and Bologna, is the beautiful and vibrant city of Ferrara, a city I had the good fortune of living and working in for four years, and a city that is often overlooked by overseas tourists and travellers.

Ferrara was most famously ruled over by the Este family whose castle (Castello Estense) still stands proud, dominating the city centre and attracting many Italian visitors. Also still standing are the ancient city walls. Built in the 15th and 16th century, these now play host to dog walkers, joggers (I dabbled once or twice) and cyclists who like to make the most of the tranquillity and views from around the outskirts of the city.

The most important thing you need to know about Ferrara before visiting is that the bicycle is king. Forget cars or scooters; if you’re not on two wheels that you’re pedalling yourself, you’re way out of the loop amongst the Ferrarase locals. I found this out quite quickly when I moved to Ferrara and managed to secure myself an old, battered ‘Bianchi’ city bike hailing from the 1970s for about 40 euros. I loved her; she helped me feel like I belonged. As a tourist, you can hire bikes from a number of shops around the city or most hotels have their own for paying guests to use. As they say, when in Rome…

Once I was securely pedalled up, bum on bike seat, I was all ready to explore my new home. And what a home it was. In the four years I was there, one of the best things I found about this city is that there is always something going on.

In September, artists and performers from all around the world descend on the city for the annual Buskers’ Festival and spend the week singing, dancing, juggling and basically dazzling passers by on many of the random street corners around the centre. Next came the Balloon Festival held in ‘Parco Urbano’ just outside of the walls where I was able to witness hundreds of hot-air balloons take flight and soar over the city, creating the most spectacular skyline. With winter come the Christmas markets and thousands of sparkling lights all around the main streets. A huge tree appears outside the Duomo (Cathedral) and the whole city gathers in the piazza to watch the switching on ceremony and light show. It is truly magical.

The rest of the year is also packed with events: the ‘Mille Miglia’ – a race around Italy in vintage cars that passes through the city centre; the kite festival; the pumpkin festival (yes, really); the Palio – similar to the famous race in Sienna but on a smaller scale. No matter what time of year you visit, there is sure to be something cool and quirky going on. One of my favourites has to be the ‘Sotto le Stelle’ (beneath the stars) music festival that happens throughout June and July. Major music stars take to the stage in the beautiful Piazza Castello, overlooked by the castle itself, to entertain the masses. Ellie Goulding, Arctic Monkeys and Paul Weller are just a few of the big names I was lucky enough to see. My friends and I even had a few beers with The Vaccines after a concert once!

On the rare occasions when Ferrara is simply just Ferrara – no cars whizzing past, no one-man-bands, no flag-throwing horsemen – there is nothing better than just wandering (or cycling of course) through the cobbled streets, stopping for a coffee, an ice-cream, a pizza or a ‘Spritz’, a popular Italian wine-based cocktail typically enjoyed in the early evening at ‘aperitivo’ time, when all the bars put on free bar snacks as a pre-dinner appetiser. Whenever people ask me what was the best thing about living in Italy, my answer is always the same: the free food.

On the subject of food, you can’t visit Ferrara without trying the local speciality ‘Cappellacci di Zucca’, a pumpkin filled pasta served with either meat ragu or butter and sage. Trust me on this; it is, without a doubt, one of the best Italian dishes you will ever try. I swear my friends and family used to visit me as often as they did just for the cappellacci.

I really could go on about this city forever. I haven’t even mentioned the numerous piazzas, museums, parks and nearby towns. The reasons to visit are endless!

So, should you find yourself in Italy and want to experience true Italian life away from the usual tourist trail, jump on a train to Ferrara. I promise it will not disappoint.


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Ferrara Italy why you should visit

Amalfi Europe Italy

Walking in Dad’s Footsteps – The Amalfi Coast

August 9, 2016
Guide amalfi coast

There’s no doubt that I inherited my love of travel from my parents; from a young age they took me travelling and opened my eyes to the world around us.

Sadly my dad passed away a little over a year ago but as we knew he was sick, we were able to spend a substantial amount of quality time with him.  Our discussions over those months were often based around happy memories and reflections of time well-spent and this of course included travel.  Dad told me that his favourite place in the world was the Amalfi Coast in Italy and I made a plan then and there to ensure we would make it to the area that Dad held so dear.

Where To Stay on the Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast is known the world over for its striking beauty but with infamy often comes a hefty price-tag and this coast is no different.  To help keep costs down, we opted to stay in Salerno which is an easy ferry or bus ride away from Amalfi, just slightly down the coast.  We stayed at a fantastic Airbnb which I’d highly recommend – it included a generous breakfast, was comfortable, modern and well located, with friendly hosts – what more could you want?

Getting Around the Coast

To get into and around the Amalfi Coast you have three main options: ferry, bus or car (be it rental or taxi).  The bus is the cheapest option but (as we learnt) timetables aren’t always adhered to, which can cause chaos.  A taxi or hire car will likely be the most expensive option (depending on how many are in your group) but will allow you to stop off wherever you like around the coastline.

Traffic around the coastal road can be manic though and because of this, we decided to catch the ferry in and out – should you choose to too, check out the timetable and purchase your tickets on the day.  Tickets on the ferry between Salerno, Amalfi and Positano are €8 each (for each connection, so €16 if you go through both towns by boat) and the return leg from Positano to Salerno is €12.

To see the sights from a different perspective (and to save some money) we elected to catch the local bus between Amalfi and Salerno and though it was significantly cheaper (€1.80 each), it wouldn’t be high on our list to do again!  We visited on a Sunday (which is when they have limited services running apparently) and after waiting for almost two hours in the sun for the bus at the front of the cue, the crowd descended into madness, we only just managed a seat on the bus, and there was a punch-up between a couple of people up the front, at which point the police came aboard and eventually took one couple away.  There was absolutely no respect for that fact that some people had been waiting longer than others which made the whole experience less than positive… that’s not to mention the vomit down the back of the bus from the incoming trip either, a frequent occurrence on the windy roads.

If you’re hitting up the Amalfi Coast on a Sunday, we’d definitely recommend you jump on a ferry – it will likely be a faster and much more pleasant experience.

Now you know how to get there and where to stay, onto the fun part…

What to do Whilst Visiting the Amalfi Coast?

Amalfi

The namesake town of the Amalfi Coast, nestled in between cliffs and mountains, is a beautiful entry to the region.  The shore is lined with bright umbrellas (quintessential Italian seaside, we’ve come to learn), the mountains with grapevines and just off the beach, you’ll find the Amalfi Cathedral, a beautiful church, sitting proudly in the village.

Amalfi CathedralUnfortunately on the day we visited the coast, it rained on and off (particularly hard in Amalfi) but we still enjoyed ducking in and out of shops, having a good nosey around.

The smell of lemon wafts down the small streets and bakeries sell surprisingly affordable items (well, by Italian standards) – keep an eye on those gelato prices though; one shop we visited was charging over twice the normal price.

Amalfi foodAmalfi is a gorgeous little town, made all the better by it’s beautiful beach.  The bay is perfect for swimming (if a little chilly when were were there in July) and if you’re happy to leave your belongings on the beach, there’s no need to pay an entry fee.  If you’re after a bit more luxury, you are able to pay to use a beach chair and umbrella (but in my mind, that’s just money that could be spent on gelato!)

If you walk a little way around the coastline (in the direction of Salerno), you’ll be able to snap some striking photos of the beach and it won’t cost you a cent.

Amalfi beach umbrellas

amalfi viewOnce you wrap up in Amalfi, we recommend you head over to…

Positano

Positano, the next main town over from Amalfi, has a similar feel to it but looks quite different.  Where Amalfi is compact, Positano stretches up onto the mountainsides – both are gorgeous and both are worth seeing.

If you decide to catch the bus over (remember, just avoid doing so on a Sunday), jump off just before the bus descends down into Positano – doing so will give you great views of the town, without needing to hike up to get them.

Positano viewPositano viewWalking down towards the bay, you’ll wind your way through a series of shops selling similar items to those found in Amalfi.

Positano beachThe beach unfolds and though it is a little smaller than the one found at Amalfi, it is just as inviting and the perfect way to cool off after a day in the sun.  We made the most of the opportunity to cool off before boarding the ferry again, setting off for our temporary home in Salerno.

Positano beach
We found the whole coast to be charming and absolutely beautiful; a worthwhile to any Italian itinerary.  By staying in Salerno we were able to keep our costs down whilst soaking up the million-dollar sights and swimming in the crystal clear Italian waters.  For me, it was especially memorable because of the connection my dad had to the area, but I think it would be a struggle to find anyone that doesn’t instantly fall in love with Amalfi.

Cinque Terre Europe Italy

Your Guide to Cinque Terre, Italy

July 30, 2016

Cinque Terre; hard to say and even harder to forget (which is saying a lot as I’m still not really sure how to pronounce it properly!) Having seen countless photographs online, I couldn’t help but wonder if it could possibly live up to the high expectations I’d set but it did that and more.

Cinque Terre is a collection of tiny villages sitting along the Salerno Gulf. Each one is unique and distinctly Italian with their gorgeous colours, pristine water and generous sprinkling of gelaterias.

Cinque Terre mapWhat Makes Each of the Towns Special?

Monterosso

The first village we visited (the one furthest out from La Spezia), Monterosso, hosts the most picturesque, gorgeous beach. The shingle beaches are dotted with perfectly aligned beach umbrellas whilst the brave bake in the sun, and the braver still swim in the still-chilly ocean.

The village itself is split in two, divided by a tunnel – one side is perfect for swimmers and sun bathers and also has a number of restaurants, whilst the other contains countless shops (and more restaurants of course).

MonterossoMonterossoAs with all the towns, a hiking track joins Monterosso to the next village over, Vernazza.  If you’ve got your train card then you’ll all set to make a start on the trail, just be sure to have good shoes with you, sun protection and a big bottle of water as although the walk is manageable, it certainly is steep in places.

MonterossoMonterossoJust over half way through the hike, you’ll find a cat feeding station.  If you feel so inclined, you can pop a donation into the container to go towards looking after the kitties, and if it’s still early when you swing by, you can open up some food for them.  Being cat lovers, it was an awesome surprise to find a bunch of kitties on the walk!

Towards the end of the hike, Vernazza comes into view and what a spectacular sight at that…

VernazzaVernazzaVernazza

Picture perfect, Vernazza is one of the villages you’ll have seen in photographs if you’ve researched Cinque Terre before.  It is every bit as beautiful as it looks in photographs, especially if you approach it from the trail (or walk a way up the trail towards Monterosso if you’ve decided to train directly into Vernazza).  The town is built around a sheltered bay and as with Monterosso, you have the option to walk through a passage that leads you to a beautiful, rocky beach.

Vernazza had plenty of lunch options (though none seemed particularly cheap) if you’re looking to spend a bit more time there.

VernazzaCorniglia

Corniglia is accessed either by walking up the 365 steps or by catching a ride on the shuttle bus (which costs €2.50 per person normally or is free with your train card) which is found just outside of the train station.

The town itself is perched high atop the hill, looking down on the coastline.  Thanks to its elevation, this village offers great views from a distance, but in our opinion was the least spectacular of the five villages.  We stopped off for gelato and wandered the shops but if you were short on time, this would be the one to skip past.

CornigliaManarola

Aside from Monterosso, Manarola would have to be one of the best swimming beaches in Cinque Terre.  Large rocks form a natural barrier to the ocean, creating sheltered pools perfect for taking a dip in.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can join the cliff jumpers diving in off the rocks – if you’re feeling less that way inclined, just wander up the ramp to the side of the village for beautiful views back over the action.

ManarolaManarolaManarola
Riomaggiore

Our last stop (or the first if you tackle Cinque Terre in order from La Spezia) was Riomaggiore.  The largest of the Cinque Terre towns, it is often the base for travellers staying in the area.  We enjoyed the sights as we munched away on dinner and then headed out to the outcrop to the side of town to take in the sunset.

RiomaggioreRiomaggioreGetting Around Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is well connected by public transport, specifically trains and ferries and is also joined by walking tracks.

A train pass for the day set us back €16 each for unlimited use until midnight and services were frequent and comfortable. Included in your train ticket is a pass granting permission to hike the trails between villages so you’ll be totally set for the day. If you decide to walk some of the tracks (which we do recommend), just check in locally to find out which tracks are open. Generally they’ll be fine but rock slips do occur which renders some tracks unusable for a period of time.

The Via del Amore trail (between Riomaggiore and Manarola) had been recommended to us but was unfortunately closed on the day that we visited – don’t make the mistake we made – check on which tracks are open at the end of the day rather than finding out as you go!  Had we realised the last trail were closed, we would have walked between another two villages instead.

We made the decision to head to the town furtherest away first in a bid to avoid the crowds that had already descended on the closest village to La Spezia. Though we didn’t manage to talk to anyone that visited in the reverse order, we didn’t encounter as many tourists as we’d expected so would recommend doing the same.

The hikes are also more challenging the further North you go, so if you’re looking to get the difficult ones out of the way, start further North in the same order we did.  If you’d rather break yourselves in on the easier tracks, start from Riomaggiore and see how you go as you move along the coast.

Where to Stay In and Around Cinque Terre

Each of the key towns in Cinque Terre have accommodation available but we found that during peak season the prices hiked up (understandably so) and that even at those high rates, the quality of most ‘entry level’ accommodation seemed disproportionally low – we don’t mind spending a little more if it’s worth it, but on this occasion, that didn’t appear to be the case. Instead, we opted to stay in one of the neighbouring towns, Salzana which made things much more affordable.

In retrospect though, we’d suggest looking for a place to stay in La Spezia – Salzana looked to be just out of La Spezia but in reality took almost 1.5 hours on the bus to get there and though it’s less than 15 minutes by train, they run infrequently.

La Spezia by comparison is the gateway to Cinque Terre, has plenty of food options and the price of accommodation wouldn’t be much more than what we paid to stay in Salzana.

VernazzaI didn’t show Nathan any pictures ahead of time so he arrived into Cinque Terre blind (so to speak) and was absolutely blown away, as was I. Neither of us could quite believe that we’d been so lucky as to spend time there. Getting there is a little bit of a trek but if you’re presented with even the smallest of opportunities to visit these gorgeous towns, make it happen – you won’t regret it.

Capri Europe Italy

Captivating Capri

July 27, 2016

Just off the coast of Western Italy, lays the island of Capri. This small island plays host to the rich and famous alongside your average holiday maker looking to enjoy the Italian sun.

Capri Highlights

This beautiful island has a number of attractions, all based around its beautiful scenery. Sharing the same coastline as the Amalfi Coast beaches, there are of course similarities, but also enough unique sights to warrant a trip to this beautiful island.

Island Tour by Boat

As you disembark the ferry, you’ll notice a series of companies offering tours of the island by boat and for between €16 and €18 per person, you’ll be whisked off on a trip around Capri.

exploring capri
From the water, the steep cliffs are immensely impressive and though the stops along the way aren’t as memorable as the general scenery, they are worth seeing.

exploring capriexploring capriexploring capri

The final point before returning to the marina is the one everyone waits for though…

The Blue Grotto

The last stop on the boat tours just happens to be the highlight too – the Blue Grotto. For a fee of €13 per person (€4 of which is tax, the rest is the boat fee) you’re able to jump into a little rowboat to head into the Blue Grotto, a water-engulfed cave where the sea water glows the most beautiful shade of fluorescent blue.

exploring capri
You can access the Blue Grotto onboard an island tour (as we did) or you can catch the bus to the land access point and wait in line there. If you’re tight on time or don’t fancy boats, that would be our recommendation. Though we enjoyed seeing Capri from the water, the boat system whilst waiting for the rowboats is pretty chaotic and a number of other tour boats managed to jump the cue somehow, delaying us from entering the Grotto even more – we would have waited well over 1.5 hours to enter the cave, during which time the people waiting on land would have been long gone.

Seeing Capri from the Top

The roads around Capri really are something to be experienced! Incredibly narrow in places with hairpin bends on sharp clifftops, these roads are not for the faint of heart but they do reward visitors with spectacular views.

If you want to get higher still, you can catch the single-seater chairlift from Anacapri to the peak of the island for what I’m told are breathtaking views.  The chairlift costs €11 each return and takes approximately 13 minutes in each direction.

exploring capri
Shop up a Storm

We were surprised by the number of high-end shops found on the island selling clothes and customs made leather shoes (though in retrospect, shouldn’t have been – the number of super yachts moored off the island were a dead giveaway). Alongside these shops were countless others targeted at your more everyday shopper, selling lemon goods (for which this region is renowned), Italian food products, souvenirs and of course pasta, pizza and gelato. If you’re keen to look around the shops, you can catch the bus up to Anacapri and then down to Capri before finishing up at the bottom of the island by the marina.

Take a Dip to Cool Off

Few beaches we’ve been to compete with the crystal clear water found around this coastline and Capri ticks all the boxes. The shingle beaches are easily assessable (not far from where the ferries drop visitors off) and as long as you’re happy to sit on your own towel, there is no charge to visit them. The water at the end of July was still surprisingly cold upon entering the ocean but we quickly adjusted; after a long day in the sun, it’s probably better that the water’s a bit on the cool side anyway!

How to get to Capri

Capri is accessible via water (or helicopter if you’re a high flyer) using either a local ferry or private transfer. The island is served by a number of large jet boats ferrying customers back and forth throughout the day from a range of locations on the mainland. We paid €23.30 each for the ticket there and €21.80 for the ticket back (to Salerno) but it is slightly less if you’re staying in Amalfi, Positano or Naples. We were surprised by the price of the ferry but could resit seeing the island for ourselves whilst we were so close.

Getting Around on Capri

Once you’re on the island, transport is by boat, bus, taxi, or if you’d prefer, rental car/scooter. Bus tickets are €1.80 per person which makes for relatively inexpensive transport, especially when you see the steep cliffs around the island – walking long distances isn’t exactly easy or efficient. There aren’t a great deal of towns on Capri which makes working out the bus system incredibly easy and as they run fairly often, they’re convenient too. If you’d prefer something more tailored to your needs though, you are able to hire a taxi or boat to take you to points around the island.

exploring capri
Whether you choose to spend a few nights on Capri or just venture across for a day as we did, Capri is worth the time, effort and expense it takes to get there. A gorgeous island with unique sights, be sure to spend some time there if you can during your trip to the Amalfi Coast.

Europe Florence Italy

48 Hours in Florence, Italy

July 25, 2016

In the lead-up to our big summer Europe trip I’d done lots of research regarding how we might spend our time in certain areas but didn’t make it to planning our visit to Florence (outside of accommodation and transport in/out) – we ran out of time to do so and because of this, the city was to be quite a surprise for us.

We’d heard many positive things about it from friends and family but what would we make of Florence?

Firstly, Florence is beautiful, I don’t think there’s any doubting that.  This old city is known the world over for its art, architecture and the beautiful vistas just outside of the city, throughout Tuscany (of which it is the capital).

The city itself manages to balance culture and its sense of history with the lighter side of life.  It’s a beautiful place to wander the streets, soaking in all of the sights (plus it doesn’t hurt that it’s a relatively flat place so your feet will come away happy).  For us, it didn’t compare to Rome but did have its own special charm.

What Can I Do In Florence?

Besides walking the streets and squares, eating your way through the city, there are a series of key points that are worth hunting out.

Take in the Best View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

After a little hike up from the river (well it’s not that little, but it is manageable) you’ll find yourself at Piazzale Michelangelo – a square that offers the most gorgeous views of Florence.  We started here on our first morning in Florence to help orientate ourselves and suggest you do the same if you can.  From this point you’ll get fantastic views over the Ponte Vecchio (Florence’s medieval bridge, with shops spanning it on either side) and of the Cathedral, along with the beautiful city itself.

Admire the Beauty of Il Duomo di Firenze (AKA The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)

The most recognised of all buildings in Florence, the Duomo or Cathedral is absolutely gorgeous – both Nathan and I commented that it was one of the most striking churches we’d ever seen.

You’re able to get inside the church without charge (which is practically unheard of in these parts of the world) but because of this, there are often large lines.

With the searing heat and long lines, we decided against entering the church or climbing the dome but should you wish to, you’ll find some information about gaining access to the dome and to the bell tower through these respective sites.  We were more than content enjoying the views from outside of these stunning structures.

Immerse yourself in Art

Florence is home to one of the most famous statues of all time, Michelangelo’s David, created between 1501 and 1504 during the Renaissance period.  This towering statue can be found at the Accademia Gallery where is stands at an impressive 5.16 metres high, weighing in at 5,660kg of marble!  We didn’t make it to see the original David ourselves but did spot the bronze replica in Piazzale Michelangelo.  You’ll also find another copy at Piazza della Signoria in the exact spot where the original used to be.

Other incredible artworks can be found all around the city, both classic and modern.  If you’re looking to spot some statues on mass, head over to Piazza della Signoria, where you’ll find countless figures.  It’s funny though, one can’t help but notice how our idea of art has changed over the years…

So, Is Florence Really Worth Seeing?

If you have plenty of time available to you, absolutely.  It’s a beautiful city that’s very walkable and offers up everything you’re looking for in Italian culture (which let’s face it, means you will be able to eat all sorts of yummy food).

If you’re short on time, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was our favourite place in Italy – I couldn’t even say that it was our favourite city.  We absolutely fell in love with Rome and Venice was so wonderfully unique, that although we enjoyed spending time in Florence, I don’t think I could recommend it over either of those other two spots.  We’ve also since visited the amazing beaches of Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast, and if I had a limited timeframe, I think I’d visit Rome and pick one of those two coastal areas instead of heading further inland to Florence.

Have you been to Florence?  If so, what did you think of this Italian city?  We’d love to hear whether you agree or not…

Activities Europe Food Italy Rome Tours

A Foodie’s Paradise: Eating Italy – Rome

July 21, 2016

There are few countries as synonymous for their food as Italy; even before setting foot here, we were aware of how Italians cherish their food and the traditions that come with it.  It seemed inevitable then, that part of our time in Italy’s capital city, Rome, would be spent checking out some of their local dishes and when we stumbled across Eating Italy we decided there was no better way to enjoy the local cuisine than on a walking foodies tour with the help of a local!

After all, if you walk in between nibbles, you’re allowed to eat more – right?

Our tour met on the benches outside a little cafe not too far from the centre of town.  It was easy enough to spot but unfortunately in our haste, we jumped off at the wrong spot; we suggest you learn from our mistake and pop CityMaps2Go on your smartphone to help you find the spots you’re looking for easily.

Once we’d been introduced to one another and to our guide, Bethany, we were given some background regarding to the importance of the Testaccio area.  This neighbourhood was the birthplace of cucina romana (Roman cuisine) and for this reason it is known to Romans as the heart of the city.

We soon learnt that a tour through this area would introduce us to a range of local characters, each with personalities and stories as integral to the tour as the food itself.

Our first stop was at an amazing local deli where, in the tradition of the neighbourhood, we started off by eating on the street.  In years gone by, new shop owners struggled to drum up business as Italians are fiercely loyal, sticking with those they know that offer high quality produce.  To counter this, new stores would offer samples to passers by in a bid to convince them of the quality of their products, hopefully winning their custom.

If I were an old-school Italian, I can tell you right now, that deli would have become my absolute favourite!  Together we sampled prosciutto (literally melt-in-your-mouth good), parmigiano and truffled pecorino cheeses and salami infused with barolo wine (the best salami I’ve ever eaten!) before being invited inside to learn about the different types of balsamic vinegar (and of course, sample them).  We had no idea of the range of balsamics on offer – as a general rule we learnt that the longer a balsamic is left to age, the sweeter the final product and we were introduced to a white balsamic (which was delicious – fingers crossed we can make room in our bags to take some home for Nathan).

The entire tour was supplemented with fantastic information about the produce and area, helping us to develop an understanding of how, where and why Italians eat as they do.  Everything we tried came with a backstory, making this tour so much more than an extended lunch!

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisEating Italy Exploring KiwisFrom there we forged on to a pizzeria where we munched on fritti (fried street food, commonly eaten as an entree to pizza) made from eggplant, peppers/capsicums and courgettes/zucchinis fried in a light batter.  Though they were delicious (Nathan was excited to get his quota of vege up), the standout of this stop for me was undoubtedly the fried apple, sprinkled lightly with sugar – oh my!

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisAfter stopping off for some quintessentially Italian pizza (of which we learnt there are two different styles served here), we made our way to the Pyramid of Cestius, one of the best preserved ancient buildings in all of Rome.

This structure, of course inspired by the great pyramids of Egypt, was built approximately 12BC and has remained standing (when others have fallen) mostly thanks to its inclusion in the Aurelian Walls that provided protection to the city.

In the same area is the Cimitero Acattolico (“Non-Catholic Cemetery”), the final resting place of many poets, artists and scholars that made their way over to Rome in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century.  Though a visit to a cemetery may feel like an odd fit within a foodies walking tour at first, the grounds are spectacular and the site has a gorgeous calm about it, making it great place to explore in between food stops.

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisReady to fill our bellies again (or pukus for you Kiwis!), we wandered over to the newly relocated local market to pick up some fresh produce.  Stopping off at the fresh vegetable stall for a variety of Italian tomatoes, another with artisan crafted bread and finally a wee stand that sold fresh buffalo mozzarella (made this morning – it doesn’t get fresher), everything was whipped up into an on-the-go feast for us.

Little did we know that around the corner were were about to find the savoury highlight of the day though… Food trucks and boxes have now caught on in Italy and a team of guys at the market are taking traditional Italian nibbles and adding a modern twist to them in the best way possible.  We were treated to the most delicious fried rice balls (known locally as ricetta supplì al telefono); this traditional Roman street food is stuffed with flavoured rice, mozerralla and meat before being deep fried to crispy perfection.  They get their name because of the long stretchy bits of cheese that pull out as you’re eating them – just like a telephone cord (for those of us old enough to remember when we had corded phones).  Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the style of phone, you almost certainly will fall in love with supplì!

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisFollowing on from the fried rice parcels, we each tried a pork dish, made up of a strip of pork enclosing bacon and cheese, lightly crumbed ready to be enjoyed.  This one was another real standout of the day for the both of us – it was tasty and beautifully cooked.

Whilst at the Food Box we also sampled some local craft beer – whilst Italy isn’t generally known for its beer, breweries are now getting onboard and crafting special brews within the country, so if you’re here, be sure to try one along with the fine Italian wine on offer (oh and there was plenty of that during our lunch stop!)

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisAs we left the Testaccio Market, we swung by what used to be the old slaughter house and saw the remains of  the old clay pot factory that used to service all of Rome.  In ancient times, food would be stored in ceramic pots (known as amphorae) but due to their narrow necks, they were impossible to clean; because of this, when they became too dirty to use, the pots would be dismantled and laid flat on the ground.  Like a perfectly structured puzzle, layer upon layer grew until a modern-day landmark grew up from the ground – Monte Testaccio.  What looks like a normal hill in this area of Rome is really a man-made mountain of discarded pottery (see the image below, it’s mind-blowing).

Sitting down in a forty year old restaurant dug into this mountain of clay we were served three traditional home-made pasta dishes (carbonara, cacio e pepe and amatriciana), accompanied by both red and white Italian wines.  The dishes were all tasty, with Nathan favouring the tomato based option whilst I fell in love with the carbonara and it’s crispy bacon-cheek strips.

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisBy this stage we were all well and truely full but when dessert is offered, who can say no?!

Off we went to one of two sweet-stations (with yelps of joy on my part!) where we started with samples of Italian pastry/pie and learnt about the ‘right way’ to drink coffee in Italy.  Romans have a series of guidelines that they live by when it comes to food (each one maximising the amount of food you can eat comfortably it would appear) and coffee falls into these rules just like anything else.  Freshly informed, coffees were ordered and enjoyed before moving onto our last stop on the tour…

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisNo Italian food tour would be complete without a generous serve of gelato and thankfully our last stop took us to one of Rome’s most respected gelaterias.  Much to our delight we were informed that no matter how small your gelato order, everyone is entitled by law to two flavours and a dollop of fresh cream too.  Italy takes it’s gelato seriously (as they should, it’s seriously good!)  We also learnt how to spot genuine gelato from the fake stuff (an important life-skill) but I won’t give that away – we’d better leave some secrets for the tour!

Eating Italy Exploring KiwisWith full and happy tummies, we farewelled each other and slowly made our way home to digest the feast we’d just been treated to.

All food and drink was included for the length of the tour and it’s fair to say that absolutely everyone went away full.  We didn’t have breakfast and didn’t need dinner until 8pm this evening!

If you’re looking for a local’s perspective in Rome and something to do that’s a little outside of the ordinary sight-seeing, we highly recommend Eating Italy.  Bethany, our guide, was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and fun and shaped the tour into the experience it was.  This tour went beyond being just a walking tour to try different foods, instead offering up history lessons, tips and tricks and of course, good food, all in a relaxed and casual environment.

Eating Italy tours, cooking classes and specialty dining options are available in Rome (we went on the ‘Taste of Testaccio Food Tour‘) and also Florence and Venice.  You can also explore the local sights and tastes in London, Amsterdam and Prague through Eating Europe.

Should you decide to join the fun on an Eating Italy experience, we’d strongly suggest requesting Bethany if possible – I do not doubt the other guides are just as fabulous, but she really made our tour memorable.

Thank you to Eating Italy for generously hosting us for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

PS: Because Eating Italy are so amazing, they’ve given us a 10% discount code to give to our fabulous readers.  Just enter ‘Bethany’ as you’re making your purchase.

Europe Italy Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

July 20, 2016
Leaning Tower Pisa

A couple of days ago we travelled from Florence through to Sarzana (which is just out of Cinque Terre), passing directly through Pisa in the process.  Both Nathan and I remember being intrigued by the Leaning Tower of Pisa as youngsters but as adults we’d been told by a number of people that the tower and town itself barely warrant going out of your way to see.

So with that in mind, is it worth making the trip to see the Leaning Tower?

leaning tower of pisa exploring kiwisIf you’re passing through the area, absolutely.  Granted, we both appreciate a good bridge/tunnel/building/insert-amazing-engineering-structure-here, but even so, we’re of the belief that for most people it is worth seeing.

leaning tower of pisa exploring kiwisThe Leaning Tower was of course never designed to lean but thanks to its significant incline, tourists from around the world flock to this otherwise sleepy town.

Construction began on this marble bell tower back in 1173 and it wasn’t long before the soft ground and inadequate foundation gave in to gravity.  Over the next two hundred years, building continued, as did the pitch of the lean, until the late 90’s when the Tower of Pisa was finally stabilised and the lean slightly corrected.

leaning tower of pisa exploring kiwisLooking at the Leaning Tower in person, it was surprising to learn that the pitch of the tower is less than it used to be, as the first thing that hit us as we rounded the corner to the tower was how impressive the lean actually was – it was significantly greater than we were expecting!

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was the third structure to be built within Pisa’s Cathedral Square and these other buildings are definitely worth a look too.  The church itself is a gorgeous cathedral, inspiring the design of the Leaning Tower, whilst the baptistery’s sheer size impresses.  The grass area behind the cathedral also provides some much needed shade away from the masses snapping photos and is a lovely place to relax.

leaning tower of pisa exploring kiwisPisa as a town was bigger than we were expecting, but there is no doubt that the infamous tower is the main drawcard to the area.  We arrived into Pisa by train at 9.30am and caught the 2.05pm departure which was more than enough time to walk to and from the tower, stop for breakfast and lunch and relax on the grass near the tower – to be honest it was probably a touch too long.

We’d recommend booking yourself a ticket out of Pisa a few hours earlier than us… if you have a great time and want to stay longer, all of the local train tickets can be used up to four hours after the ticketed time, but they cannot be used any earlier (eg. if you book to leave at 12.30pm, you can leave any time up until 4.30pm).  There’s no real need to spend the night here unless you want to as a way of breaking up a serious journey.

… and as a parting shot, here’s the quintessential ‘holding up the Leaning Tower’ photo, because as much as we thought we wouldn’t, it just didn’t feel right walking away until we snapped one!

leaning tower of pisa exploring kiwis


Europe Italy Venice

Venice – The City of Bridges

July 18, 2016
Venice Exploring Kiwis

Venice is one of those places that you feel like you’ve seen even if you’ve never been.  Iconic images of canals and gondolas aren’t hard to conjure up, but having now visited, it’s pretty clear to me that there’s really nothing seeing it for yourself.

The cities’ 100+ islands are connected to the mainland by a causeway and to one another by a series of bridges.  Getting around involves a lot of walking, and for some people, the use of water taxis, gondolas and vaporettos (water buses) but visitors are rewarded with plenty of unique sights and Italian food – read on for our suggestions to help you plan your time in Venice…

Venice Exploring KiwisThings to do in Venice

Check out the Rialto Bridge

The oldest and most unique of all the bridges in Venice, this beauty spans the grand canal with shops either side of it.  I haven’t a clue how it’s still standing considering all the weight it must support, but be sure to swing by the Rialto Bridge on your way to Piazza San Marco.

Venice Rialto BridgePeople-watch in Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square)

The main gathering point in Venice, Piazza San Marco is found on the shoreline of the South-Eastern part of Venice.  Each day, tens of thousands of people congregate in this area to relax, meet friends and soak in the sights.

The namesake church, St Mark’s Basilica, takes pride of place on the corner of the square whilst the clock tower provides a focal point for tourist photos.  Tucked around the bend is the Piazzetta di San Marco which is not official a part of the square but may as well be.  It is also home to some amazing architecture and is the water access point to St Mark’s Square.

If you end up on a cruise, keep an eye out as you depart/enter Venice as you’ll get amazing views of the square!

Venice St Marks SquareEat tiramisù!

Nathan’s a bit of a tiramisù-eating machine and though I must admit I’m generally not much of a fan (I don’t like coffee), we were both blown away by the delicious and innovated tiramisù creations on offer at I Tre Mercanti.  This amazing little shop, right on the corner of a canal and near the Piazza San Marco, houses an amazing selection of Italian products – it’s seriously a foodies dream!  Best of all though, are the delicious tiramisù cups, flavourful macarons and, so I’m told, the Italian hot chocolate.

We were there first and foremost to try out the tiramisù that we had heard such amazing things about.  Nathan tried their traditional tiramisù (when someone is rumoured to make the best dessert around, you really do need to try it after-all) and I tucked into an apricot and liquorice version; both were completely different but equally amazing.

Nathan’s traditional tiramisù (€3.50) was fantastico!  Creamy, rich and everything a good tiramisù should be.  It’s not often that Nathan finishes a dessert by himself, but this time round he polished off his and tried pinching some of mine too – if that’s not an indication of how good these are, I don’t know what is.

My apricot treat (€4) was refreshing, with the fruity layer cutting perfectly through the rich creamy body and a subtle hint of liquorice that came through right at the end.  The addition of liquorice added an interesting twist to this dessert but for the most part it was a heavenly apricot and cream concoction – so good.

i tre mercanti reviewAs much as Nathan loves tiramisù, I love a good macaron, so of course we couldn’t resist taking a couple home for later.  I settled on the apple & cinnamon and wild berry.  Honestly, they were the most flavourful macarons either of us have ever tasted!

Do yourself a favour and track down I Tre Mercanti when you’re in Venice.

i tre mercanti reviewOh and Pizza, Pasta and Gelato too!

Though Venice isn’t the best place to sample the top-knotch versions of these, if your time in Italy is limited, make sure you indulge in some Italian specialities – it would be rude not to.

VenicePop over to Murano and Burano

These two islands lay to the side of Venice, each offering something different to the more famous city.  If you have a spare day up your sleeve, buy yourself a 24 transport pass for €20 and jump on a vaporetto (water bus) to check out Murano, which is famous for its artisan glass blowing.  Following that, head over to Burano (my favourite of the two) to snap some photos of the brightly coloured homes – it’s out of this world gorgeous.

For more on these islands and specific instructions on how to get there, check out this post.

Murano Burano Venice

Take a Gondola Ride

For us, this wasn’t a priority, largely due to the price.  At €80 for 30 minutes, they’re a relatively expensive way to get around, especially when you’re travelling as a couple – if you’re in a larger group and are able to split the cost amongst more people, the value does improve however.  When we considered what other adventures we could get up to on our trip with that money, we decided it was better spent elsewhere, but there’s no doubt that boarding a gondola in Venice is about as iconic as it comes.  If it floats your boat, go for it!

Venice

Venice Gondola

Keep an eye out for…

Cover charges

We’d read about these before but when we settled down to eat in a small Chinese restaurant off the well-trodden tourist track, we didn’t even think about it… until the bill came and we saw we’d been stung another €4 for the ‘pleasure’ (and I use that term very loosely!)  Apparently restaurants and cafes should disclose this fee on their menus but we saw no sign of it anywhere – before you order, be sure to ask if there is a cover charge so you can make an informed decision about where you want to eat.

Signs!

I can’t tell you how many times we got lost, only to double back and see there was a sign pointing us in the right direction, tucked away just a little out of sight.  Walk around with your eyes up, constantly on the lookout for directional signs.

Getting lost in general

During the second half of our time in Venice we had a go at using Ulmon’s app, CityMaps2Go and it was a godsend!  This handy app is free and allows you to save maps to your phone and then navigate through them using GPS in real-time – if you’re hitting up Venice (or any spot really), pop it on your phone right away.

Your feet

Venice is a relatively small city but thanks to all the twists and turns, you’ll end up doing a heck of a lot of walking, much of it up and down steps thanks to all of the raised bridges.  Take comfortable shoes and wear clothes that won’t restrict your movement too much.

Venice Gondola

VenicePractical Information

Getting from Marco Polo Airport to Venice

After arriving into Marco Polo Airport, we ventured outside knowing we needed to catch either the 5 or 15 bus – what we didn’t know though was that we couldn’t purchase tickets onboard.  We were promptly turned around and found the ticket counter back inside; we should have turned to the left as we soon as we left the arrivals hall.  Tickets for the buses that run from the airport will set you back €8 each, one way – relatively expensive considering the distance travelled, but no doubt cheaper than a taxi and much cheaper than a water taxi.

Getting around Venice

It’s impossible to get cars past the entrance to Venice, so straight away anything with wheels is ruled out.  Venice is an incredibly walkable city (just remember your comfy shoes) but if you’d like someone to take you to a specific spot, you’re able to hail a water taxi, hire a gondola, or jump onboard a vaporetto (or water bus).  Though the vaporettos aren’t particularly affordable at €8 a pop, they are the most cost effective way of getting around on water.  If you’re planning to use a fair bit of public transport, you might like to consider a 24 hour pass for €20, which allows you unlimited use of the system for your chosen time period.

Whatever you do, don’t spend all of your time on boats – there’s something special about just going for a wander and getting lost amongst the twisted lanes of streets and waterways.  Just be sure to pack your patience and plenty of time.

Venice Exploring Kiwis

Venice is a magical city, unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been.  If you have the chance to visit, take it with both hands!

For those of you that have spent time in this fabulous place, what do you recommend doing whilst there?

Thanks also to I Tre Mercanti for inviting us to sample their infamous desserts!

Burano Europe Italy Murano Venice

Murano and Burano – Venice’s Neighbouring Islands

July 17, 2016

Not far from Venice, amongst the most romantic of cities, lies a number of smaller but equally memorable towns.  If you’re got a little spare time up your sleeve, why not make a day of it and head over to Burano and Burano from Venice…

Murano

Murano feels like a glimpse into the Venice of years gone by; its cobbled streets, punctuated by a major canal are quieter than Venice, though the main ‘street’ feels equally geared towards tourists.

Well known for artisan glass blowing and design, many factories and shops on the island make and display trinkets ready to be taken home, with designs ranging anywhere from a couple of euros right up to incredibly detailed pieces going for astronomical figures.

Prices in this region are high but we managed to share a delicious pizza (and Nathan got a coffee) for €11 which is pretty cheap all things considered – if you’re wanting lunch during your visit, check out the cafes near the intersection of the canals.

Murano glassMurano glass
Burano

Burano, the smaller and quieter of the two similarly named islands, known for its brightly coloured buildings and its trade in lace clothing, is approximately 25 minutes from Murano by boat.

Though the lace is gorgeous, it was definitely the call of a photo opportunity that lured us over to this wee island.  By now you’ve probably seen photos of this brightly coloured village floating around online and thought there’s not much to do there, it’s worth a visit purely to soak it all in!

Burano is a sleepy fishing village with a difference, of that there is no doubt.

Burano coloured village
Burano coloured village
How do I get to Murano and Burano?

To get to Murano, take vaporetto number 3 from Piazzle Roma to Murano and then the number 12 onto Burano. You can also catch a ride to/from Piazza San Marco (or connect from your nearest stop) on a vaporetto – just check your nearest location below.

Venice Vaporetto MapThe vaporettos aren’t cheap but as you’ll be catching a minimum of three, get yourself a 24 hour transport pass for €20. It normally costs €8 a pop to ride on one of these water buses (you read that right!) so you’re saving yourself €4 right off the bat and will also have free public transport for the remainder of the time period. You can also buy your ticket in advance – the 24 hours only starts when you scan onto your first ride.

Venice Vaporetto

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