Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Small Guide to Italy...How Charming!

If you're anything like me, you love a good travel guide. It's all very well going it alone and seeing what little gems you happen to come across, whether it be a hotel, restaurant or cute cafe. But sometimes, you just need that little bit of extra help; a bit of reassurance that yes, you are making the right choice with this B&B/French restaurant/Great big castle that sleeps 20 people.

So, when I received a guide book on hotels in Italy and was very kindly asked to review it, of course I said yes. The guide book in question is this one:

Published by Duncan Petersen Publishing and part of a range entitled Charming Small Hotel Guides (check out their website here), this nifty little book is pretty special in several ways. Firstly, it's an independent printed guide, so you'll find no funny business; some hotels actually pay guides to include them, and this definitely doesn't happen here. Secondly, it's open, honest and sometimes quite frank. As well as including all the good bits, you'll get the not-so-great info too, which other guides can often leave out. These guides have sold hundreds of thousands of copies all over the world and have been translated into 5 languages, which is a sure sign that people like them. If someone wanted to translate my blog into 5 languages I'd be pretty chuffed. (Any takers? No? Then I shall continue...)

Apart from the fact that it's a nice size (have you seen the size of some of the guide books out there? Once you pack it in your suitcase there really isn't room for anything else), it's also very easily laid out, which makes easily confused folk like me a lot less, well, confused. Each chapter tackles a different region, starting with a short area description, a list of 'back up' hotels in case the main choices are full (a useful addition, but it could have been placed at the end of the chapter perhaps), followed by 'full page' properties (the cream of the crop, which also contain a helpful 'quick info' section on the left of the page) and 'half page' entries, which are still charming but don't quite make the cut for a full page review. Each entry contains one or two photos, usually of the property itself and then perhaps a shot of the bedroom. You'll get a load of info on the location of the property, its history, the owners, as well as wonderful little details such as how comfortable the beds are, or what the breakfast actually consists of. Here's one of my favourite examples:

'Bathrooms are...graced with good towels' (property in Lombardia)

While it includes several different types of accommodation (hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses, villas, castles and even a converted abbey) these places all have the same thing in common: they're not your run of the mill accommodation. Charming, full of character and often slightly off the beaten track is what you'll find in this guide, and personally, that's usually the kind of accommodation that I look for. Are the staff helpful and thoughtful? Is it a convenient location? How comfy are the beds? The descriptions are personal without being all gushy, and the reviews positive without forgetting the odd slightly negative detail that may be important to some potential guests.

'From the outside you couldn't call the chalet beautiful, but the rustic interior is welcoming...' (property in the North West)

'Parking is not ideal' (property in Umbria and Marche)

And  even some quotes and feedback from those who have stayed there and sent in their personal reviews (a touch which I quite liked):

'Some visitors have commented that the intimate atmosphere is not family friendly' (property in Tuscany)

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this handy little guidebook and will be referring to it in the future. Even though it is a wonderful city, I did find the number of choices in Venice to be a little too extensive however (around 36 full page entries) and the regions of Puglia and Calabria had been combined into one very small 'heel and toe' section (as a resident of Puglia this was just a little disappointing). However, the section on Tuscany was great, and focused not only on larger places such as Florence, but on properties in the surrounding towns and countryside too, which is where you often find the sweetest little places.The reviews are very honest, straightforward and have just the right amount of useful detail included. In my humble opinion, this seems like a very trustworthy guidebook indeed.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The wanderer returns...(Tales of Tuscany)

You may have been wondering where your (fairly) regular dose of sunshine and tomatoes has got to recently. Well, dear readers, I will tell you: I have been galavanting around Italy. That’s right. Whether by plane, train, automobile or even bike, I have been discovering a lot more about this beautiful land in which I live. From a gorgeous bed and breakfast in Bari to the towers of Tuscany’s San Gimignano and the breathtakingly beautiful Dolomites, in these past few weeks I have seen and experienced so much. And I intend to tell you all about it...starting with my little road trip up to southern Tuscany.

My good friend and I simply got into her car, got hold of a couple of maps and headed in the direction of Tuscany. Why? Because we could. I had always wanted to see more of Tuscany, after having visited Florence about a year ago. I was fairly eager to escape Puglia's arid landscape for a while and immerse myself in the green-ness of Chianti and the Val d'Orcia. When we arrived, about 5 hours and several coffee stops later, the luscious landsape welcomed us with open arms. Our bed and breakfast (, located near the beautiful medieval hill town of Montepulicano (in the province of Siena) was simple, clean and very affordable, and offered not only amazing views but also some absolutely delicious home made croissants and cakes for breakfast. From here, we went on to climb Montepulciano's hefty slopes and discovered its yummy pici pasta. I also had a cheeky glass of Vino Nobile, which is made from the local grape. 


The next day, after a nice big breakfast (which, needless to say, consisted mainly of cake) we paid a visit to the famous 'town of beautiful towers', or to use its actual name: San Gimignano. This medieval town, similarly to Montepulciano and many other towns in Tuscany, is perched on a hill. What makes it different however, is the fact that it is home to several large towers. There used to be around 70 of the things, but now only 14 remain. San Gimignano is also famous for its saffron, and you can even get saffron ice cream here! We also stopped off at Siena, which is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and marvelled at the Duomo and the grand Piazza del Campo, which is where the Siena Palio horse race is held every year. Siena is one of those wonderful cities, that is neither too big nor too small, and is steeped in medieval history. It's perfect to just wander round, stopping now and again for a coffee or a gelato. Nobody seems to be rushing about here.

San Gimignano

Landscape surrounding San Gimignano

Piazza del Campo Siena

Duomo Siena
 Our final stop was in the small town of Pienza, which is famous mainly for its Pecorino cheese. This is a lovely place to visit, especially if you want to pick up some delicious wine, cheese or other homemade products such as chutney, jam and biscuits. Easy parking, friendly people and lots of charming hanging baskets all over the place. 

Pecorino cheese in Pienza

Picturesque countryside surrounding Pienza

Our little trip around Tuscany could have lasted for at least another couple of weeks; there is so much to see here. Even just gazing out over the Tuscan landscape fills you with a deep sense of peace and tranquility. My advice would be to do it all by car; it's the best way to explore the hidden gems that this region has to offer. Parking is fairly easy, even in Siena, and many small bed and breakfasts are located just outside the towns; don't miss them by heading straight into the centre. 

Has anyone else had the chance to explore Tuscany? Where are your favourite spots?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Peace and tranquility..or perhaps not.

Ahh, the southern Italian, small town lifestyle. Calm, quiet and peaceful, right?

Well, not where I live it isn't. I have come to realise that Italians are not quiet people (well, duh). Nothing they do is done with low volume. And so when you live in a tiny little street (honestly, I can almost reach into my neighbours house) and are forced to have the windows open during these sticky summer months (yes, even September is warm), you have the 'pleasure' of hearing even the softest exclamation of 'mamma mia'. Not that that phrase is ever used softly, but hey.

Let me show you a little photo of my humble street:

And now let me inform you of some of the sounds that bounce around on a frequent basis in said humble little street:

babies screaming

children screaming

adults screaming

dogs barking

cats meowing


the jingle of the national weather report on tv (which goes something like this: duuum, du du du duuuum)

the 'glop' of pasta being served onto plates

women arguing

women shouting at each other

women shouting at men

men running away from the women

Gangnam Style

cars revving

motorbikes revving

one of those battery powered jeeps that kids have. I'm not saying I want to (I totally want to) but I may be forced to don a balaclava and remove the battery during the small hours of the morning. ('It was during a period of mental instability, your honour...')


power tools

power tools

more power tools

 every single word of every single conversation that happens within 20 metres of my house

So yes, you could say that I'm not exactly living in the quietest area of town. However, there is an upside.

Yes, definitely an upside...

Not quite sure just yet what that upside is, but I'll be sure to let you all know as soon as I think of it. I suppose you could say that I'm getting a very realistic insight into how the southern Italians live. In all their shouty, power-tool abundant glory.

Have a great day folks! :D

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Keep calm and carry on...or not.

Southern Italians are know for being laid back folk. No rushing allowed. Don't sweat the small stuff, that kind of thing. And even though they do gesticulate wildly and become almost aggressive when they feel that you haven't eaten enough (regardless of the fact that you have consumed 5 courses), this assumption of their relaxed attitude is usually accurate.

I like to think that, after having been here for almost three years, my patience levels have increased. However, I am still prone to small outbursts, very much like the one that occurred today. You see, my washing machine has been on the blink for a while. The other day my man attempted to fix it and, after tinkering about a bit, it seemed to have worked. I put a wash on and, hey presto, clean clothes! So today, when I confidently put a big bundle of stuff into the machine, pressed START, and waited for forty minutes or so, you can imagine my frustration when said big bundle hadn't been washed properly.

So my man came round to investigate (sorry feminists). What he found upon his arrival, was a grumpy British woman chucking half wet half dry socks about the place.

'It's broken again! I don't know what to do! I thought we (ha! we!) had managed to fix it!'

''s alright..try and stay calm!'



And there you have it. Man vs. woman. Italian vs. English. Me vs. my washing machine. Sometimes patience needs to be lost, just as long as you manage to find it again. You'll feel miles better. Try not to get your pants caught up in the crossfire though...