Sicily

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It’s hard to describe Sicily with just words. Sicily is scents – lemons and cigarette smoke – and sounds – church bells and bellowing fishermen at the market; it’s tastes – chilli and salty sea-spray, and of course sights – almost impossible to describe, but usually bathed in various hues of dripping, golden-yellow sunshine.

SIRACUSE

Our trip through the South-East started in Siracuse, briefly the capital of that most eclectic of Empires – the Byzantine Empire. Ortigia, the oldest and most beautiful part of the city, is actually an island that has to be reached by a small bridge. Here we strolled through narrow cafe’-strewn lanes that all seem to lead directly to piazza Duomo, a strangely oblong-shaped and dazzlingly bright piazza flanked by OTT aristocratic palaces and baroque churches. The Cathedral sits in the middle, and is a perfect microcosm of Sicilian history and architecture. With ancient Doric columns, a Norman roof in the nave, at one time a Mosque, and finally, (coming neatly full-circle) Corinthian columns on the facade,  it is a perfect example of the dizzyingly complicated history and culture of Sicily. You wouldn’t know it just to look at it though, the end result of the whole piazza is a stunning and very aesthetically uniform example of high Sicilian Baroque.

As if to reinforce its identity crisis, Siracuse sits prettily by the sea, at the intersection of the Ionic and Mediterranean. We bought a seafood fry at the unassumingly-named but delicious Sicily Fish and Chips and ate by the water.

Things to do in Siracuse:

  • Ortigia Food market – Blood-red oranges, dried chilli peppers, glistening black olives and giant, silver swordfish heads; all accompanied by a lot of shouting and gesturing. Every morning except Sunday.
  • Piazza Duomo at Sunset – Watch the entire piazza transition from a bright, pearly white to deep orange.
  • Go to the beach – There are two swimmable spots with small pebbly slips right in Ortigia itself. We went in November so we didn’t really fancy it but the water was a beautifully clear blue-green.

NOTO

We weren’t meant to go Noto. Our actual destination was Modica, near Ragusa, but our naive assumption that we could make the short 2 hour journey to our intended destination in Sicily on a SUNDAY ended us up in the much nearer Noto. I am so unbelievably glad that I underestimated southern Italian Catholic fervour as Noto ended up being, as it so often happens, my favourite stop on the trip. Once a town of varying architectural cultures and styles, a massive earthquake in 1693 shook the town into a dazzling and unique uniformity of Sicilian baroque. Churches, Piazzas and Palazzos were reconstructed; streets were widened – a practical anticipation of future disaster with beautiful, airy and ironically calming results. Noto is small and quiet, and there isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself apart from eat almond granitas or explore flamboyant palazzos, but just walking through the streets of Noto, when all the Palazzos and the ubiquitous churches are lit up golden-orange at sunset, is an incredible experience.

Things to do in Noto:

  • Visit the Palazzos, especially Nicolaci Palace – possibly the most striking example of typical Baroque style. Elaborate, iron-wrought balconies and mermaids, hippogryphs, and sphinxes decorate the outside, while the interior is a no-less elaborate display of Empire-style chandeliers and frescoed walls and ceilings.
  • Walk the centro storico at sunset
  • Get a granita and brioche at Caffe’ Sicilia – the granita’s are made with fresh, seasonal ingredients like Sicilian blood-orange, but the most traditional is almond flavour.

RAGUSA

As beautiful as historic Ragusa is, with it’s tiny, private lemon orchards, stunning palm-fringed piazza and tangled alleys leading ever-up to the peak of Duomo S. Giorgio, the city is at its most breathtaking from afar, especially at night. From Ragusa superiore, the historic centre (Ibla) rises magnificently from the surrounding hills like an ambitious nativity scene. When it’s misty, Ibla becomes quite literally a city in the clouds. We had our best meal of our trip (and one of the best meals full stop) by far in Ragusa superiore at Trattoria da Luigi. It’s not what you’d normally expect from a trattoria – tiny, quiet and modern, options included pistachio carbonara and chilli and caper Sicilian pesto, all at pretty ridiculously cheap prices.

Things to do in Ragusa:

  • Relatively unassuming from the outside, this neo-classical palazzo stuns from the moment you walk into the courtyard and on into the beautiful interior with hand-tiled floors and frescoed ceilings. The view of the Cathedral from the balconies is stunning, and it’s all topped off with with a Sicilian aperitif at the end. Book an appointment for a tour through their FB page.
  • Get a wine-flavoured ice cream at Gelati divini, or another unusual flavour like prickly pear or chocolate and chilli.

TAORMINA

If Ragusa is beautifully situated on a hilltop, Taormina on the North coast gives it some serious competition. Perched strikingly on the side of a cliff, it also has spectacular sea and Mount Etna views to boot. Having not suffered from the serious earthquakes in the south, the architecture is more varied, and there are some amazingly restored medieval buildings. Corvaja palace, from the 10th century, is Arabic with Gothic and Norman additions. It’s unique beauty also means that Taormina is very touristy, so I wouldn’t recommend it if what you’re after is the genuine Sicilian experience, or if you’re simply not in the mood for being ripped off.

If you want to escape the crowds and being 200 metres above sea level isn’t enough, then you can hike (or get a bus) like we did to Castelmola, a tiny medieval town above Taormina with magnificent views of Etna and the Tyrrhenian from its ruined castle. If you’re here visit Bar Turrisi – a cafe’/bar with beautiful views and some interesting decor. By interesting I mean that it is covered by pictures and sculptures of penises..everywhere..over four whole floors. It’s very random, especially for a bar in the middle of nowhere! It’s also apparently the birthplace of red almond wine, which you can of course buy in a penis-shaped bottle as a souvenir.

Things to do in Taormina:

Visit Isola Bella – We first glimpsed it on our train-ride to Siracuse, and thought it was some sort of mirage – too pretty to actually be real. Only a short bus drive from town, Isola Bella is like something out of a fairytale. A tiny, castle-topped island that juts out of the crystal-blue water and is separated from the main beach by a narrow sandbar.

Hike Etna – We’d looked into doing a tour with Viator but sadly didn’t have time. There are plenty of tours to choose from though, especially in the summer months, though I wouldn’t recommend the intense temperatures in July and August!

Hike to Castelmola  – If you want a breather from the crowds this hike offers beautiful scenery of the coast and Mount Etna. It took us about an hour and a half. I’ve heard from some that the views from here are actually more impressive than hiking Etna.

 

 

 

 

 

Sicily

Lipari, Sicily

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Visiting Lipari at the end of October meant that we saw a very different island to the busy, tourist-touting transport hub that people generally see in the summer. While most days still consisted of brilliant sunshine, calm seas and omnipresent bougainvillaea plants gently swaying in the breeze, others revealed the origin of the islands’ eponymous name-sake Aeolus – God of the winds. Indeed everyday life on the Aeolian islands is dictated by the whims of the wind (not least for the sailors and fishermen).  Scirocco from North Africa would mean hot and humid days and clouds so low they passed beside us, whereas the fierce Ponente from the West, transformed into a wind tunnel as it passes through the Gibraltar Strait, meant battening down the hatches and holing up in bed listening to the gail-force winds and its eery howls, while watching sea-water spray the house from almost 300m below.

We stayed in Quattropani, the highest spot on the island and the furthest away from the colourful and historical port-town of Lipari. Too high-up to hear the waves, we woke up to the sound of church bells and the industrious humming of ferries instead. We spent the days hiking volcanic trails and visiting churches with spectacular sea-views, hanging out with super-friendly neighbours or just chilling out in the garden overlooking neighbouring island Salina, making prickly pear jam and grilling fresh fish from town with lemons from the garden.

Things to do in Lipari:

Visit the Acropolis: Most people would expect to see a temple in an ancient Acropolis, but Lipari’s was actually destroyed by Arabs in 838. What remains is a fortified citadel with a beautiful Cathedral and archaeological museum. One of my favourite views in Lipari is of the Citadel from up high (when driving into town from the Pianoconte direction) with the shimmering Tyrrhenian sea in the background.

Visit Quattrocchi: One of the best views on island. From here you can see the Faraglioni of Lipari (giant cliffs jutting out of the sea) and views of Vulcano island. If you’re here in the summer try some of Maria-Grazia’s spicy Aeolian Crostini (Capers, sun-dried tomatoes and lots of olive oil on crusty bread.)

Visit Canneto: Lipari’s largest stretch of coast where locals and tourists alike come to the seaside to hang out on the pebbly beach and swim in pristine water. If you’re here go to bar Tano to have

Granita with brioche: A classic Aeolian breakfast (or afternoon snack ). Flavoured shaved ice (the most typical is mulberry) with whipped cream and a side of fresh brioche. It is amazing!

Visit the Observatory: More amazing views – this time of Vulcano and Vulcanello. If you have a hire car this place is also beautiful for star-gazing on a clear night.

Hike from Quattropani to the Fumaroles or Pianoconte: The trail starts at Quattropani and goes along the coast boasting beautiful views of Salina and the Faraglioni. At about half-way you can either turn into the ‘Fumaroles’ trail which takes you past dramatic Canyons and sulphurous rock up to the fumaroles – volcanic steam chambers; or continue onto Pianoconte past beautiful, remote Aeolian houses and Olive Groves with amazing sea views.

Visit/hike to Acquacalda from Quattropani: A very sleepy town with quaint Aeolian houses that are so close to the sea that the crashing waves pay regular visits. Listen to the echoing sound of the waves in the church.

Sunset at Chiesa Vecchia: My favourite. The church is small but the location is more than grand. It’s definitely the most amazing spot for a church I’ve ever come across. 400m above the sea with spectacular views of all the islands from the gardens at the back. Come with an aperitif and sit on the rocks while watching the sun go down.

Lipari, Sicily

Amalfi photo diary

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There are places that I’ve travelled to that I know I will return to again and again, and I know that again and again I will fall even more in love with them. There is just something uniquely magical about the Amalfi coast and the picturesque little towns dotted along it. Even the journey there feels like a dream – the bus from Sorrento, the main pick-up point, takes you on a ridiculously beautiful and terrifying coastal drive along hair-pin curves and vertiginous drops to the glittering Mediterranean sea below. A few miles of lemon and bougainvillaea bedecked houses and gardens later, and you’re greeted by towns of pastel-colour houses stacked precipitously on cliffs above an impossibly blue sea. Not a bad start.collage-2016-03-09 (2)

Things to do: The first time I visited I went to Positano. This is possibly the most visited town along the coast and rightly so as it is stunning. You’ve probably seen pictures of views from hotels with the iconic yellow church steeple all over instagram. On our most recent visit we went to Capri and Ravello. Capri is its own island rather than a town along the coast, and has its own magnificent views – most famously of ‘I faraglioni’ – the two giant, iconic rocks that jut out of the sea. We decided that we wanted to see them up close so we rented out a powerboat and did a tour of the island from the sea. We went through the famous hole in one of the Faraglioni and visited one of the many cool caves that are dotted around the island. In the bay outside the cave we had a picnic on the boat and I think I can categorically say that was one of the loveliest days of my life.

Capri is also famous for the blue grotto – a cave that is illuminated bright blue inside because of the angle at which the sunlight hits it. You get in on little rowboats and the men that steer them love to sing Neapolitan songs inside the cave as they echo so loudly. This and the strange blue light make it one of the most eerie and magical experiences I’ve ever had. Some people go swimming in the cave after hours when the boats have left. This is illegal and we definitely did not do this…nope…

If you go to Capri you must make sure to visit the area above Anacapri – the most elevated part of the island. Getting there is fun as you have to get the funicular, and the views from the top are totally breathtaking.collage-2016-03-09

We wanted to go to Ravello on this trip as it is one of the most high-up of the towns along the coast (you have to get a bus that goes up the mountain from Amalfi) and thought it would have amazing views. We were not wrong. The most memorable moment here was the view from the Terrace of Infinity in the gardens of Villa Cimbrone. This Medieval villa is famous for its beautiful flower-filled gardens that gradually lead the way to a statued terrace with stunning views. I don’t usually mind heights but looking down here made me feel very dizzy. There is a tiny, half-hidden bar below the terrace with a balcony overlooking this view that’s about big enough for two people. We got my favourite pre-prandial, a bright orange Aperol.

I’ve been to the Amalfi Coast about four times now, and even though I love ticking as many countries as I can off my bucket list, it keeps beckoning me back. My grandparents are from this area originally, so I guess there’s a sort of psychological affinity there, but really I just think it is uniquely beautiful. Perhaps Steinbeck said it best in his book about Positano;”Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

Where to stay: Hotel Rufolo. Nice decor and great views. It is one of the more slightly affordable hotels for the view that you get. My dream is to one day stay at Villa Cimbrone.

Where to eat: Anywhere. Really, I have never had a bad meal in Amalfi, even in the most touristy of areas. The seafood especially is consistently amazing. One particularly memorable restaurant was at Cumpa’ Cosimo in Ravello. The food here is trattoria style rather than Michelin and is run by a lovely, frilly apron-clad woman called Netta. She’s such a larger than life figure that most locals simply call the restaurant Mama Netta’s. The food was so good here that I can still remember the taste. I recommend the pizza.

Amalfi photo diary

Florence

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Chanel-style jacket customised with faux fur cuffs – Tailor-made; Jeans – Abercrombie & Fitch similar here; Shoes – Nine West; Bag – Louis Vuitton vintage

I’ve often wondered what it is about Florence that makes it so special for so many people. There are lots of beautiful cities in the world but I’ve yet to meet a person that thinks that Florence is just meh…Maybe it’s the fact that there are so many intact Renaissance buildings, and so few modern ones, which is rare for any city. Even the roads and pavements with their distinctive ‘stab marks’ (last pic) seem untouched by time. There’s also the fact that like the rest of Tuscany, what’s attractive is not just the beauty of the place, but the lifestyle that goes with it – amazing food, beautiful clothes, and of course, the best gelato in the world.

I also think that Florence is the probably the most romantic city I’ve been too. It seems a strange thing to say but I always seem to imagine Florence at sunset. There’s some sort of magical orange light about it at all hours of the day. I’m sure it’s just the colour of the buildings that makes it seem that way, but it’s certainly beautiful. My Italian family lives quite close to Florence, and it was always my favourite place to go for a date… Continue reading “Florence”

Florence

Truffle Fair

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Location – San Miniato Truffle Fair (Various dates in November)

The first time I tried truffle I wasn’t all that impressed – it smelled really strongly of gas and looked pretty gross. I remember thinking that people must like it because it’s rare and exclusive. It only took a few more tastes though before I was hooked – that stuff really grows on you! Or not, as the case may be, because truffles are a fungus and this is what makes them so rare – you can’t cultivate them and you need trained dogs or pigs to sniff them out. On top of that they seem to only be found in certain areas of Italy and France, and a very few on the West Coast of the US.

One of these areas is the beautiful countryside around San Miniato in Tuscany, where they hold a truffle fair every November. If you’ve ever thought, ‘I like this [insert food stuff], but it would be better with truffle’ – you’ll find it here..cheeses, salamis, hams etc. These are found in the stalls in the lower part of the old town, where you then you work your way up to the the top part with its breathtaking view overlooking the Tuscan countryside. The view is reserved for the special stalls – they literally have red velvet carpeting –  to showcase the don of the truffles: the white truffle. These are weighed on chrome scales and if you’re really keen on them – you can take them away with you for about $200+ per 100g. We bought a tiny piece and had it with butter and parmesan tagliatelle that night. So so good!

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Italy has all types of food fairs year-round and nationwide. They call them Sagras and they can be devoted to anything from cherries, fish, tagliatelle, pumpkin ravioli.. anything really. I’ve had some of my best meals with sporks and plastic plates at these fairs. As a bonus they’re usually held in the pretty piazzas of old, picturesque towns. All the English sites only seem to have dates for the big food expos but this translatable Italian one is pretty good.

Truffle Fair

Tuscany

sm3crsm6acsm1acsm1sm4sm5wallbacwallsidesmsmbstanonna and zsunsetsmTights – Topshop; Jacket – H&M; Skirt – Liu Jo; Boots – Ralph Lauren, I also like these Laboutin ones; Shirt – Pepe Jeans Andy Warhol collection; Bag – Braccialini. 

Location – San Miniato, Tuscany

Of all the places I’ve lived in and travelled to in the world, I know that Tuscany is the place where I’m going to end up; hopefully in a house like the one in Under the Tuscan Sun, with fountains and cypress trees all around it. I’m even willing to have a bird poop on my head if that’s what it takes (That’s not totally random, you have to see the film.) Not only is Tuscany aesthetically beautiful – think rolling olive groves steeped in mist and beautiful crumbling Renaissance buildings – but I find the lifestyle and its emphasis on family time, food and togetherness beautiful too. It’s a stereotype I suppose but I can only speak for my own loud Italian family and their obsession with emphasis on delicious meals and family gatherings. In case you hadn’t guessed – that’s my lovely nonna in one of the pics!

Lots of people know about the famous Tuscan towns – Florence, Lucca, Siena – but the fact is that there are so many old towns and hamlets dotted throughout Tuscany that are all so beautiful. They all invariably have picturesque piazzas, old churches and of course restaurants worth visiting. This town where I took the pictures for example is not particularly touristy, except for a few days maybe during the Truffle Festival (next post), but it’s one of my favourite places in the world. (Also my boyfriend’s, who has his eye on a church there :):):)) If I were visiting Tuscany for the first time I would rent out a car and take the country routes to as many pretty towns as I had time to see, taking unscheduled stops on the way. Elena Nacci has a really good shortlist of less touristy places to visit in Tuscany.

Tuscany is also famous for its manufacturing and artisanal goods. Some of the most famous designer brands originate here – Gucci, Prada, etc. The bag I’m wearing in the pictures is by popular Italian label Braccialini and is also based in Florence. They make really cute and unique designs and I would gladly own every single one of their bags. I love how they can make a dark winter outfit really pop.

Tuscany