Italy

Sirmione – a northern Italian tourist trap where nothing is what it should be. But the beach’ll fix that.

If Sirmione was empty, it might be a quaint lakeside town. But it’s full, an endless torrent of tourists flocking to its tourist trap shops, cafe’s and restaurants like morbidly obese people to motorised scooters in Disneyland. Undoubtedly one of Lake Garda’s most popular places to visit, Sirmione is also, it struck me, full of things that are not exactly what they seem.

You enter Sirmione’s old town through the drawbridge of what looks like a castle. But is it really a castle, or is it more a set of walls in the shape of a castle? If you then want to see all the small town offers in way of history, there are a few options.

You can stand in the street and look at the villa where opera star Maria Callas used to live, or if you’re loaded you can stay there (it’s now a hotel) for about £500 a night. You can check out a few churches, the one on the hill, San Pietro, has frescos from the 12th century and a bell tower from the 11th. Or, in lieu of motorised scooters, the old, infirm or plain lazy can ride a mini train to the Roman ruins of what was once a grand villa – the Grotto of Catullus (the Roman poet). This, by the way, is neither a grotto nor somewhere Catullus actually lived.

All the while, since Sirmione is so abundant with conifer, pine and olive trees, you can breathe in the same smells as you would if you were in the Mediterranean.

But don’t get me wrong. Sirmione was not so full of deceptions I would actually urge you to cross it off your list of ‘things to cross off a list’ during a holiday to Lake Garda. For me, it’s best bit was it’s ‘beach’. I say ‘beach’ because, well, there’s water you can swim in, that part will feel familiar, but for most of us it will be like no other beach we’ve ever been to. Giamaica Beach, or Jamaica Beach if you want to confuse your Facebook friends about exactly where you’re holidaying, is located at the very tip of the peninsula that is Sirmione, evocatively overlooked by the ruins of the house that Catullus did not live in.

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Giamaica/Jamaica Beach facing the Grotto of Catullus

Almost the entirety of Sirmione’s old town is encircled by flat, smooth rocks that go out about twenty meters before they fall away and meet the lake. Imagine the rocks taking the place of sand you’d normally find at a beach, with people sitting on them, sun baking on them, running their dogs over them and you’ll be starting to get the idea.

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The ‘beach’ and beach-goers – with the beginning of the alps visible in the distance.

If you’re not a great swimmer you can paddle around between the rocks, while the superstar swimmers can slip and slide their way to the edge of the lake (the rocks are pretty slippery so take it slow) and swim out as far as their strong swimmer arms allow. Watch out for the boats though as they go past fairly often and fairly fast. It would be a shame to be smacked unconscious and drown.  (more…)

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Venice Part 3 – how to visit Venice and keep your sanity; stay in Padova

I wasn’t sure at first, but my mother’s insistence that we stay in Padua instead of Venice when she came to visit this summer turned out to be yet another example of ‘Mum knows best’. Venice is unlike any city in the world (well, that I’ve been to), it’s seriously amazing and I probably only just scratched the surface, but… the crowds… oh my god the crowds…

If I’d been staying in Venice I think I would have ended up barricaded in my hotel room with some nice calming music and a medicinal ‘beverage’ or six to keep me from being sent mad each day. But luckily my wise mother foresaw all this and decided we’d be staying 40 kilometers west of Venice, in quiet little Padua. Or Padova if you want to be Italian.

Padova (yep, I want to be Italian) is a University town of approximately 250,000 people, sitting along the Bacchiglione river in the Veneto region. And it’s unlike any Italian city I’ve ever been to.

I’ve been to Italy about ten times, but except for a quick trip to the Cinque Terre, Florence was the furthest north I’d ever been. Maybe a lot of the northern cities are similar to Padova, but at first I wasn’t that impressed with it, architecturally I mean. To be honest, after spending the day in Venice, it would be hard for any city to compare to the beauty of Venice. But by the end of my week there I knew my first impressions were a little unfair because Padova has a simple charm about it which unfolds the longer you’re there and the more you immerse yourself into local life.

What struck me as unusual to begin with were the narrow streets surrounded on both sides by covered arches, giving everything an almost claustrophobic feel. But, being Italy, the arches have beautiful vaulted ceilings, so even though I felt crowded, looking up was still pretty.

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And away from the very centre, the streets are wider and tree lined like the one below.

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So what’s there to do in Padova, besides breathe, in the calm  after a day of crowd wrestling in Venice? Here’s my picks.

Prato Della Valle

Padova’s biggest square is one of the largest in Europe. It has a garden in the centre and a sort of moat with 78 statues of famous Padovians (if that’s what they’re called) circling it. Like most Italian squares, it’s a great place to come at dusk to witness the ritual evening passeggiata, as locals meet to walk, watch their kids play or catch up on gossip.

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Churches

If churches are your thing, you’ll love Padova. The one below is the rather imposing Basilica of Saint Anthony or ‘Il Santo’, but they also have the famous Scrovegni (with some of the best preserved Giotto frescoes around, so precious that you have to stand in a humidity chamber to regulate your temperature before going in), the Abbey of Santa Giustina, the Padua Cathedral, the Church of the Eremitani, San Gaetano and Santa Sofia. Knock yourself out.

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The University of Padua/Galileo

One of Padova’s most illustrious residents was Galileo. He taught at the university between 1591 and 1610. The street where he lived has now been named after him.

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Dating back to 1222, the University of Padua is one of the oldest in the world (and the second oldest in Italy, after Bologna). From the 15th to the 18th centuries, it was a leader in the fields of medicine, astronomy, philosophy and law.

The tour of Palazzo Bo, which housed the University’s anatomy school, is well worth doing. The highlight is surely the amazingly preserved anatomy theatre, where public dissections took place and more than a few light headed anatomy students fainted – from the heat and small confines of the room of course, not from the blood and guts and creepy stuff going on below them. Apart from getting to see the medieval surgery tools which looked more like torture devices, the anatomy room was my favourite part of the tour. Our guide was a bit stiff for the first half, corralling us in the lecture hall and spewing out dates and names (albeit in 3 languages), but once we moved on from there she relaxed a bit and became a more entertaining story teller. Stick it out if she’s boring you.

The courtyard of Palazzo Bo. No photography is allowed once inside unfortunately.

The courtyard of Palazzo Bo. No photography is allowed once inside unfortunately.

Detail of the crests around the portico of the Palazzo courtyard.

Detail of the students’ family crests around the portico of the Palazzo courtyard.

Piovego Canal

During summer, a little way out of the city, the Piovego Canal is lined with temporary, wooden hut-style bars where the drink of choice, Spritz (Prosecco, Campari or Apperol and soda), costs just 2 Euros. Each drink order also comes with free nibbles, so you can help yourself to whatever’s on the bar; usually chips/crisps, but sometimes they also break out the dips! It’s kind of clever to give you salty food for free, because that of course is just going to make you thirsty and go back to order another Spritz.

The bars are close to the university campus so it attracts students (as you can see in the shots below), but in Italy, students out for a drink are nothing like what you might encounter in the UK or Australia. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheery, as opposed to loud and out of control. (more…)

Venice Part 2 – the usual suspects

Venice. Sigh. It’s slightly attractive. As I said in my Part 1, there’s not really much I could show you or tell you that you’ve probably not heard before. But I did learn one interesting fact. So below is that one fact, a word of advice and then some pretty pics. For pics of another kind, see Part 1.

Some Advice 

You’re going to go into St Mark’s Basilica aren’t you? I mean, you’ve come all that way, no matter how worn out and weary of tourist attractions you may be, it’s one of those things you just have to tick off. Well, here’s what the queue looks like to get in.

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Eww. So, my advice is to book yourself on some kind of walking tour that includes the Basilica and you’ll waltz right past all those poor people who aren’t in the know. Plus, I mean, hello, if there’s one place in the world where you really really need to find yourself an expert to explain what you’re looking at, it’s Italy. And for that I can highly recommend Walks of Italy .

Of course these things depend greatly on who you get on the day, but our tour guide was amazing (I think he was called Mose, but don’t quote me on that). His presentation wasn’t just a dry spewing out of facts, he really told a story and helped us imagine Venice how it would have been hundreds of years ago. It’s a real skill to be a good tour guide and for me in Italy the best have all been Art History students. So maybe that’s the key.

A Fact to Blow Your Mind (thanks Mose, if that was your name… )

Venice had the world’s first digital clock! Look again at the queue in the photo above. See the clock tower there? It was built in the late 16th century, but in 1855 panels to the left and the right of the virgin and child statue were added. As you can see below, these panels change every five minutes, a kind of Roman Numeral digital clock.

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This is 12 o’clock…

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and ta daaaa… five minutes later it shows 12.05. Very cool.

Some Pretty Pics

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And there it is, well the most famous part at least, with the St Mark’s Basilica bell tower jutting out conspicuously.

And another view from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore, an island across from St Mark’s square.

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As part of the 2014 Venice Biennale, this sculpture by Heinz Mack will be on display at San Giorgio Maggiore until November 23rd. It’s called ‘Sky Over 9 Columns’. I’m not usually one for modern art and it of course has all sorts of symbolic meanings, but to me it just really looked like it was holding up the sky and that was enough to impress me!

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I spent a hell of a lot of time looking up in Venice.

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Venice Part 1 – the everyday side of one of the world’s most photographed city

What could I possibly tell you about Venice that you don’t already know? Or haven’t already seen? It would have to be one of the most photographed places in the world wouldn’t it? Well, when I was walking around Venice, taking shots of all the most photographed buildings, monuments and alleyways, I even began to bore myself. Well, as much as looking at endless beauty can bore anyone. So I began to snap the locals going about their day instead, trying to get an idea of what it would be like to actually live in a giant lagoon.

The beautiful stuff I’ll post next, but for this one, here’s some of the ordinary, everyday aspects of living, working and visiting Venice.

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This is a Vaporetto station, the Venetian version of a bus or train station. It’s floating too, so waiting for your ride is like a ride in itself.

The Vaporetto’s are usually absolutely packed. This guy makes sure everyone gets on and off safely.

From what I experienced, this is a pretty empty version of a Vaporetto ride.

From what I experienced, this would be classed as pretty empty. Aww, it’s just like being on The Tube in London. With prettier scenery.

Does anyone on public transport ever look happy?

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The Police…

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The Paramedics

The Garbage Man...

The Garbage Man…

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The garbo’s doing their thing. Bet you’ve never pictured this version of The Grand Canal.

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Delivery guys…

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The craftsmen who make the Gondolas.

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A not so busy Gondolier.

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A Change in Direction

Reality bites. Being sensible sucks. And because I can’t think of any more eating metaphors to express my disappointment, I’ll just spit it out.

If you’ve read any of the previous posts on this blog, you’ll know that six months ago I was set to go shopping for my own little slice of dolce pie. I’d found the country, the region and even the town I wanted to buy a holiday home in. I’d spoken to real estate agents, confirmed I loved what was on offer, and more importantly, had the dosh in the bank to actually make a purchase.

And then life happened. And it happened all over me. Life with its bills and bad luck and illness and unemployment and rescued cats peeing on the furniture.

And because of this life, I’m afraid the savings are drying up quicker than Lindsay Lohan’s Hollywood job prospects. After much bottom lip dragging and self important wallowing, the decision has now been made to put the dream on hold, while Sensible Sally smacks me around the head regularly to remind me that a frequently unemployed immigrant might want to make her life a bit more stable before she spends every last penny on an Italian ‘Villa’ she won’t have the means to be able to spend any time in anyway.

Oh, I know, I know – First world problems!

And so this blog needs a new purpose. It will no longer specifically be about Italy and my experiences buying a property there, well not for quite some time anyway. I’m going to use it instead to document allllll my travels.

And hopefully, if you’ve enjoyed some of the Puglia stories so far, you’ll come back every now and then and see what I’ve been getting up to in the rest of the world, and see whether I’ve managed to get a grip. Or a job.

Life in Ostuni Part 1- the food

Erm, that title is a bit misleading. The longest I’ve spent in Ostuni is a little over a week, so this is certainly not the definitive tale of life there. And, unusually for me when ensconced in Italia, this time I barely skimmed the surface of what Ostuni has to offer food-wise. So think of this instead as the taster, the nibbles, the (cough) antipasti.

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Ostuni’s old town, with the tempting Adriatic Sea in the background for when you want to escape city life for a while.

As I explained here, I made the decision in May that I needed to spend some time in Ostuni before committing to buying property there. Sensible? Well, yes. Obvious? Well, yeah alright, that too. Puglia trip #2  was therefore to become a reconnaissance mission.

This time I didn’t hire a car, something I would insist any other visitor to Puglia do by the way, because I had no real need to see the sights. My mission was simply to look at properties and get a feel for the city. Traipsing around all week to the stunning dual coastlines of Puglia, exploring ancient villages and playing spot the Trullo as I trundled through the Valle d’Itria were distractions that would just have to wait till next time.

After seeing properties in the mornings, I set about trying out the things I imagined I’d be doing if I lived in Ostuni part of the year. Mostly this involved sitting on the rooftop terrace, soaking up the sounds of the city which wafted up from the streets and out the many open windows of the houses surrounding me. Happily, it also allowed me to soak up the late September sunshine, leaving me enough of a tan to last at least half way through the fast approaching, long, cold UK winter.

Each day, when I reached the point where I might be risking skin cancer, or worse – boredom – I came down and wandered around the old town, searching for gelato and photo opportunities. Separately that is, I don’t mean that I was looking for nice places to take pictures of ice cream. Although, there was this…

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Surprisingly, no – sacrilegiously – it took me three goes to find a truly amazing Gelateria in Ostuni. I know! I won’t tell you the name of the first one, lest they get their feelings hurt. But I will tell you it’s on the main road into the old town, half way up the hill on the right, with muscular guys behind the counter who obviously think they’re too good to be scooping gelato for tourists. (more…)