Europe, Italy, Travel

Gelato in Firenze

Florence, or “Firenze”, as it is commonly known as, is as an artists day dream. A historians haven. A philosopher’s paradise.

Tourists wander around this magical city as if in a daze, with their minds overflowing, boggling with the sheer amount and value of appreciation to what they see before them. Everything is so beautiful, so detailed, it seems one is in a parallel universe; where an external force has created everything in perfect equity, displaying all the incredible architecture of the world, world class art and picturesque streets, all in one place and titling it absent-mindedly, Florence. The name, Florence, meaning “to flower”, is ironic. The time of the creation of these stunning buildings, it seems the makers already knew what was to become of this slice of heaven, what it would grow and continue to grow into: becoming the most important political, economical and cultural city for 250 years. The birth place of fashion (Gucci and Roberto Cavalli both were born here), of literary artists like Dante, artisans like Michel Angelo, philosophers like Galileo and the birthplace of opera, which still continues to develop and swell in popularity on an international scale.

It is no wonder the streets of Florence are always busy, as the whole world queues up to catch a glimpse and essence of what life is like in this city that tells a thousand tales in its walls, where food and wine make your legs shake, where buildings are romantic and can charm even the most cold hearted loner. Who couldn’t be touched in any way by the idyllic ice cream parlours that serve gelato that melt on the tongue, the casual strolls in the warm evenings that leave you feeling floating on air, and the incredible views that are enough to seduce you to move here. It offers frescoes, churches, sculptures, palaces, museums (over 80 of them) and picture galleries that are enough to leave you breathless.

The city’s heart and soul, the most iconic landmark, is the Duomo. Different to the one in Milan through both shape and design, this Duomo illustrates a medieval style with different hues of marble that combine together, creating a mirage similar to a mediaeval style of architecture. Head up to Giotto’s Bell Tower for an incredible view over Florence.

For more Romanesque architecture head over to the baptistery of San Giovanni, where this 11th century building tells the story of humanity and redemption on three sets of doors, both compelling and extraordinary. Another treasure chest of masterpieces is the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella which contains great art work as well, look out for the frescoed chapel by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Masaccio’s superb Holy Trinity fresco and the painted crucifix by Giotto.

Whilst in Florence, you must head over to the Uffizi gallery, home to the worlds best collection of renaissance art which truly is outstanding. However, the real essence of Florence isn’t in stuffy art galleries, but out in the open air, with the warm sun reflecting on your sun glasses, or the night sky illuminated by the lonely moon, seeing the real art of the sculptures. Florence is renowned for its superb collection of sculptures which can be found in Bargello or the Museum of the works of the Duomo, or even Accademia. I enjoyed the Piazzle Michelangelo the most. On the outskirts of town, (or a walk up some steep steps) the iconic naked statue of dishy David enters the plaza, and with the sweeping city scape of Florence behind, it made my trip to Florence. Come here any time of the day, whether it be when the sun dutifully rises rearing its head over the sleepy city, or when the sun disappears dipping and bursting of varying pinks or purples, or even when the blanket of night smothers Florence, in each scene, each time, it is incredible.

After soaking in the beauties and incredible achievements by the creators of Florence, head to Basilica Di Santa Croce, to mourn for the deaths of the greats: Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, and so many other influential figures, by visiting their tombs. It is a sombre place, dismal because of such greats to have left this earth, but also inspiring, to have seen the work they created, without the modern technological advances we are lucky to have been blessed with today.

Do remember to rest whilst in Florence. Italians are known for doing this well. For relaxing, for catching up with friends and making it home in time for dinner. For eating healthy and drinking equally as healthy. And Italy is definitely the place to gain a few pounds whilst thinking about nothing, or everything. Trying to write poetry even though you don’t know how, reading a trashy novel, reading a good novel, reading anything. Florence is yes, a place of beauty, wonder and architectural brilliance, but it is also a place to lose yourself. Have a wonder through the Piazza Della Signoria where there are an abundance of statues to gaze at, or cafes to drink in. Wander to Ponte Vecchio the oldest and only Florentine bridge to survive WW2, and is still surviving. The area is filled with quaint shops and cafes, where street performers come at night and entertain those that gather.

Food in Florence is fantastic. And I am not just saying that because it’s Italy, it’s different to what you find in Milan. The food in Tuscany is equally as good as the food in Naples, just different spectrum’s and different styles. Naples you can gore yourself on a greasy doughy pizza, but here you can try different types of home-cooked bread that is warm from the oven, crumbles in the mouth and served with numerous antipasti and toppings. Or whilst you are here try the gorgeous, “Pappardelle sulla lepre”, wide ribboned pasta with creamy meat, (Tuscany love their meat which maybe why I love them)delicious.

Coming here at a young age means, unfortunately I did not go clubbing or hop to any bars, (I am sure to the relief of my parents) however, I do not remember where we stayed either. What I do remember is the hawks and calls of men trying to catch my attention whilst I absent mindedly walked ahead from my mum and older brother, and the casual slimy stroke I received up my leg whilst walking up a busy street. Even at a young (13 year old) age, I was still getting unwanted attention from men, so women look after yourself!

Europe, Italy, Travel

Espresso in Milano

Milan is, metaphorically speaking, the knee high glossy leather boot that Italy is shaped as. It is the heel tip of Italy, in elegance, style and panache. Known as the city of design and fashion, and home to the ever growing Italian economy, Milan is a dynamic and cosmopolitan city, where even if you don’t like fashion, you will still feel the energy of this area that excites every local and visitor. There are three essential cogs to the turning wheel of Milan: fashion, art, and drink (I mean both espressos and drinks in happy hour).

Although the city revolves around sleek fashion, stylish looks and witty charm, there is much more history to Milan than expected, in fact even more than Rome has. Milan is famous for its extraordinary blend of modern ad historical sights; of the Duomo, the grand Gothic cathedral that lies at the heart of the city, the opulent and charming La Scala, one of the most established opera houses in the world, art collections from various time periods and regarded as the finest works in Europe, and the UNESCO world heritage site of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Finding the historical beauty of Milan is a surprise, it is hidden in plazas, in opulent shopping malls and rushed past in a hurry on the way to the office in the early morning. Milan is often pictured as the working city of Italy, working more than the whole of Italy put together (which I am sure is only partly true). However, I see parallels to London in Milan: the work ethic, the genuine addiction to football, and the glamorous nightlife (well parts of London anyway). It is no wonder that international fasionsistas, muses and models gather here twice a year as the city is worth the attention it receives. Its beautiful, not in the fabulous showy way of Rome, but in a rustic double take way, where the city deserves more attention and the gorgeous glamorous people, have everyone’s attention.

Milan

Of course whilst you are here, you must visit the Duomo in Duomo Square, it would be like visiting Paris without visiting the Eiffel Tower. A real shame. It is hard not to miss this Gothic vision in marble which stands proudly in the cultural and social heart of Milan, surrounding a number of Milan’s famous sights. 600 years of creation, 135 spires and 3400 statues later, the Duomo stands as one of the largest Gothic churches in Italy and no doubt, one of the most stunning. It is a fairytale castle, (an incredibly pointy one at that, which if you were a giant you really would avoid), and the highest spire is adorned with the golden statue of the Virgin Mary, known as the “Madonnia” by the locals, the guardian protector of the busy yet beautiful city of Milan. Head to the rooftop where you can catch a glimpse the amazing view of Milan at your feet, and if your lucky, the Alps in the distance.

Another breathtaking sight is the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Celso. The first, is a UNESCO world heritage sight where the masterpiece created by Leonardo da Vinci, “The Last Supper”, is nestled comfortably within stunning renaissance architecture, lit by natural light that floods through the many windowpanes that create an airy feel to the place. The latter is another church famous for another painting, which instead of highlighting the divine powers, has miraculous powers, according to Italian legend. Apparently it is Italian custom, for newly wedded brides to stop off here and leave their bouquet for the Virgin Mary, so they can gain a happy and healthy marriage.

If wanting to explore more of the art scene that Milan has to offer head to Pinacoteca di Brera, a world class museum that calls itself, “the centre of culture”. It is filled with famous paintings that will make you marvel at history. After, head to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana for more classical Italian artwork, finally ending at Cimitero Monumentale, an unconventional setting and different platform, but still pays homage to the Art Nouveau style with its incredible sculptures and impressive monuments. For those who love ballet or opera, head to La Scala theatre, one of the most renowned opera houses in the world, I would advise booking in advance.

Once soaked in as much history and culture as you possibly can, (there are so many more museums, monuments and galleries to explore rather than just the ones I have mentioned), do take the time to explore the city by foot. Wander through the area, “Naviglio”, where the canals run through Milan. Although only two canals remain, the area is still rich with vitality and it is a romantic spot to sip a coffee and watch the world wander by. If gasping for a green patch to wipe your eyes of some of the grey and dreary buildings, head to Sempione Park, right behind Sforzesco Castle. The gardens are designed in a neo classical landscape and are filled with interesting features that many artists sit and sketch on small pieces of paper or take photos of its intricate detail.

I came to Milan for a city “escape”, (I am never really sure why I use the word escape when in fact I am not escaping anywhere, but just popping away for an exploration) with my mum. This meant we spent a large proportion of our trip at another famous sight, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a shopaholics paradise, a haven for spendthrifts and inspiration for fashion icons. The building gives an air of opulence and luxury, it transcends beauty and wealth to all that wander through. It exhibits easily the chic and fabulous lifestyle of stylish locals that wear the trendiest clothes, have glossy apartments with glitzy furnishings and glamorous wardrobes. It contains boutiques such as Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, which of course, was well out of our price range- although was fun to rummage through. As well as this, there are book stores, restaurants and even art galleries in this palace of a shopping mall detailed with authentic renaissance architecture, which seems to encapsulate Milan in a microcosm. Perfect.

The only restaurant that stands out to me to return to was: Latteria San Marco, because of its authentic Italian ambiance and menu, which we were recommended to go to by our hotel. The food was deliciously tasty and warming to your body once swallowed, as if someone’s grandmother cooked it with all her passion, heart and soul. However, there are numerous restaurants to dine in Milan, a world of authentic Milanese food, as well as an up and coming market of international cuisine that can be sampled here. Bars are found in popular districts underneath arches and off cobbled streets, filled to the brim come 7pm for discounted drinks and nibbles, so make sure you go to a bar for Milan’s famous happy hour.

We stayed at the opulent and glamorous “Hotel De La Ville Milan”, which we did because of its close proximity to the sights, looking back it was incredibly expensive but if you want an easy access, chic hotel, this is a good one to pick. (I guess not for the backpackers reading this!) As you might have guessed, this trip is not a cheap backpacking trip of mine, but a lavish girly holiday with my mum (I wouldn’t have afforded it!)

Europe, Extreme Sports, Italy, Travel

Pila in Aosta Valley

Heading on a jam packed school coach at the age of 14 to Pila in Northern Italy, was not my way of usual travel. In fact, I had never (before this point) travelled for a long distance by bus anywhere. I had before flown everywhere, accustomed to the expat lifestyle in Bahrain and the glamorous family holidays I was taken on. Boy was I in for a real treat when years later would I realise, that my obsession with travel had chewed me up and spat me out, not caring how I got to a certain place, but as long I got there (my future backpacker self). Passing spectacular scenes of trickling brooks, vast green pastures and many, many sheep, we finally made it to the dramatic Alps that stood brooding and loomed over us from afar, their snow dusted tops glinting in the shimmering sun: we had made it.

Aosta Valley is not your typical destination for a skiing holiday, however my previous skiing holidays were in the more popular country of Switzerland, (known for its world class ski resorts) and so this trip definitely enticed me. France is the most popular skiing destination for many Brits because of its easy access to the country (especially how you can dump all you gear in the back of the car and drive yourself), however I am told because of the influx of tourists, the resorts themselves are quite pricey. Always being the one to try something new, I was interested to see the Alps from the Italian perspective, and the Italians way of life in a ski side town.

Aosta town is the closest town to the ski resort of Pila and it has every essence of being an authentic Italian mountain side village, with no opulent apres ski bars or wild clubs, it means that you can explore the ancient monuments, good shopping and traditional tasting Italian cuisine, without being swamped by a hefty price tag. It is a small quaint town, which only really gets busy at the weekends when fellow Italians from nearby cities such as Milan, come visit to ski because of its easy access to the ski slopes.

Pila’s snow records in the Alps is one of the best and with its superb snow making slopes that lead up to 2700m, it is one of the treasured snow destinations of Europe, that not many British people know about. The lofty thick alpine trees line numerous runs which make slopes challenging and entertaining. Pila is fantastic for intermediate skiers with 29 red runs, although caters to both advanced and beginners. With such a stunning horizon of marvellous mountains that shape your view; easy access to the French side of the Alps for variation and to catch a closer glimpse at Mount Blanc, as well as a fun snow park, Pila is an ideal spot for skiers who want to ski, with no other ulterior motives and with the delicious taste of creamy Italian pasta on their lips.

Europe, Italy, Travel

Seen In Sardinia

Sardinia is a rugged Mediterranean island filled with natural surprises, sweeping coastlines and surrounded by a deep blue emerald sea. Lying between Italian Sicily and the French Corisca, many overlook this destination for its neighbours, but why so? Being a significantly large island, it is perfect for anyone who likes to explore just by renting a car and seeing where they head to or exploring mountainous regions that show off lofty alpines and are home to rustic cheeses. You could spend your time here exploring the interior of this island and its Tiscali‚Äôs nuragic ruins, learning about the unique lifestyle of Sardinian people, excavating ancient tombs and Roman ruins, or hiking up mountains and scoping out extraordinary rare wildlife in one of Sardinia’s national parks.

Sardinia

Or if adventure and history isn’t you thing, then no sweat. Sardinia has white sandy beaches that are perfect for any avid sun worshipper where the sand, sea and sun will seduce you, leaving you to blissfully lose time nestled behind unique rock formations and sheer looking cliffs. The great thing about the size of Sardinia is that you can easily take a day trip from your accommodation to find your own secluded private beach, away from other sightseers and visit a hidden restaurant serving fresh home-made pasta and smooth local white wine.

Coming here for a family holiday when I was a teenager, meant I explored white sand beaches with wind weathered rocks, local restaurants serving sweet limencello (“you are supposed to sip it Victoria”-I remember my Dad saying to me as I necked back the shot) and soaked up the toasty climate. Coming in August, meant that much of the island was thriving with anticipation of that summer holiday feeling, the air of excitement, as well as the whole of Italy flocked to this island, which made an impact on my stay here.

Another factor that affected my overall visit to this place was a quick drink at Costa Smeralda. The St. Tropez and Puerto Banus of Italy, I was taken aback by the amount of wealth that was flashed here, the place to be seen and to see others. Of course the beach was lovely in the area, as of most of Sardinia, but the port and the surrounding areas felt like a sore thumb compared to the rest of Sardinia. Where was the authentic traditional Italian beach holiday? Where families eat pizza on the beach and tourists are scolded for going topless? Definitely not here. Costa Smeralda is a flashy glossy area of Sardinia… with a staggering price tag. If you are the person who likes to drink Mojitos in style (which occasionally I do, I must admit), then book a luxury hotel and enjoy your time here, but if not, leave this area of Sardinia untouched and move further afield.

Although I didn’t personally see these sights (but I did get quite a nice tan), I have heard they are well worth the visit. Head to the most populated town in Sardinia, Cagliari, where stunning ancient churches are a plenty, Budoni for incredible beaches and Costa Verde for its wildlife and untamed beaches.