juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

Over the last 25 years, I've visited over a hundred countries and learned a lot about saving money without scrimping on the travel experience. If you're looking to broaden your horizons and make your travel budget stretch further, then Julia's Travels is for you. To find out more about my work as a freelance travel writer, please visit www.juliahammond.co.uk.

Latest

A beginner’s guide to Lombardy beyond Milan

Italy’s one of my favourite countries so when an invitation from Ryanair popped into my inbox to visit some of the less well known towns in the Lombardy region, I jumped at the chance. For those of you who read the whole sorry saga of Edison the dog’s attempts to keep me at home, I’m delighted to report that the string-pulling worked and I was allowed in (and out) of Italy. But what’s there to see in Lombardy? If you’ve already been to Milan, don’t write off the rest of this captivating region. Here’s what you need to know.

81865A87-8CD8-4028-BB8B-996CD75F176F

Crespi d’Adda

Getting there

Milan has three airports, but Ryanair’s main hub is Bergamo, under an hour’s drive from the city. At the time of writing there are four flights a day from London Stansted, making this a convenient option for travellers.Well over 6 million passengers have flown the route since its inception in 2002 and local followers, you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s now a route from Southend which is a lovely airport to travel from. (If you’re UK based but not local to me here in Essex, Ryanair also operate flights to Bergamo from East Midlands, Belfast, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.)

However, using an airline’s hub – in this case Stansted – is often advantageous. If things go wrong, for example delays due to bad weather, there are usually plenty of planes and crew members on standby. To be honest, though Ryanair gets a bad reputation for some of its newsworthier policy decisions, its punctuality record is pretty good. Our flights were on time both ways.

B040E413-0F10-4EB7-94A1-B85B6AF74FAF

Ryanair’s main northern Italy hub is Bergamo

Tips for using Ryanair’s main London base, Stansted

I’m no fan of London Stansted airport, but have noticed that it helps to take a flight outside the manic early morning slot, when staff are generally more patient and helpful. The 4pm departure got me to Italy in time for dinner, though if I’d have been able to make the 1pm flight after my unscheduled dash to the passport office that would have been even better.

Incidentally, I rarely check in a suitcase, but on this occasion Ryanair had arranged for hold baggage. While I regaled the check in staff with tales of mischievous dogs, a gentleman came to check in but hadn’t paid for hold baggage and was directed to the customer service desk to upgrade his booking. Here’s a pro tip for your next Ryanair flight: if you’re planning to bring a small wheelie case, instead of paying for hold baggage, opt for Priority Boarding instead. You’ll still have to pay, but it will cost you less to bring it on board than if you check it. But remember, the number of priority passengers is capped, so make your choice sooner rather than later. By the time you reach the airport, it’s likely to have sold out, particularly if the flight is full.

Getting around

There’s a direct bus from the airport to Bergamo and to Milan. Though Bergamo airport doesn’t have a train station, the bus connection into Bergamo itself (take the Number 1) takes less than a quarter of an hour. Ryanair also fly to Milan Malpensa, by the way. As this was a press trip, the itinerary was fixed. The old part of Bergamo looked lovely up on the hill and I now have it in my sights for one of my day trips by air.

city-4269031

My next trip?

Trains run to a number of destinations from Bergamo’s central station. One line runs south east to Brescia; the same line in the opposite direction gets you to Lecco for connections to Como. Read my guide to spending the day in and around Como here. Another line runs west to Seregno and Treviglio to the south is also connected. To book high speed trains in Italy in advance, visit the Trenitalia website.

Regional trains need no advance booking and are relatively cheap. Bergamo is also well served by buses. Most of the destinations featured in this post can be reached by a combination of buses and regional trains from Bergamo, but you might find it easier to make Milan your base if you’re planning a series of day trips. To reach some of the smaller places in the region, consider renting a car from Bergamo Airport. Our itinerary effectively looped Lombardy and was perfect for a week-long trip.

image

Bellagio, beside Lake Como

Where to go

Mantova

Also known as Mantua, if I’d have paid more attention in English Literature class at school I’d have known Mantova was the place Romeo bought his poison. The city also featured in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. (Verona isn’t far away, though sits just over the border in the Veneto.) Arriving across the bridge which bisects two of the town’s three lakes, you can’t miss the sprawling Palazzo Ducale. This hulking pile was the family seat of the Gonzagas, a noble family who ruled the town for centuries.

DSC_0061 (10) (2)

Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale

The stories our guide told us of the Gonzaga family were at times outlandish, yet always fascinating. Francesco 1 Gonzaga, who ruled from 1382 to 1407, sought to strengthen the  dynasty by marrying Agnese Visconti from Milan. However, it soon became apparent that the alliance wasn’t having the desired effect, so he invented a fake adultery story in order to have theepoor girl beheaded. Her alleged lover, also innocent of any wrong doing, was hanged in the park beside the palace. The obnoxious Gonzaga remarried, this time Margarita Malatesta (from the family that ruled Rimini) but his new wife unwittingly carried the gene for osteomalacia, which was passed down from generation to generation and left various members of the family suffering from joint pain, easily fractured bones and hunched backs. If that’s not karma I don’t know what is!

DSC_0062 (9) (2)

The park where you’ll find the memorial to Agnese Visconti

The ceilings are magnificent, with beautiful artwork, gilding and numerous personal flourishes added by various members of the Gonzaga family. One of the highlights of the Palazzo Ducale was the Camera degli Sposi, or the bridal chamber. Elaborate frescoes painted by Antonio Mantegna in the 15th century adorn both walls and ceilings. They’re very clever, using relatively new techniques at the time to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. To avoid damaging these ancient works of art, visitor time inside the room is strictly limited, but that’s still enough time to notice some of the more humorous details.

DSC_0027 (9) (2).jpg

The 3D effect

Mantegna didn’t believe in “photoshopping” and painted his subjects as he saw them. Look carefully and you’ll see one of the women depicted with the ugliest haircut ever to have come out of Italy. At the time, people from all over copied her – she was the Jennifer Aniston of her time.

DSC_0023 (7) (2).jpg

Check out that haircut!

Cremona

In Cremona, it was the lack of attention paid in my school music lessons which produced the regret. This charming town was the birthplace of Stradivari, the great violin maker, who was born here in 1644 or thereabouts. He wasn’t the first: Amati and Guaneri came well before him but there was something about Stradivari’s skill that set him apart. Today there are 164 registered violin makers in Cremona, all competing for business. We met one of the most experienced, a Frenchman called Philippe Devanneaux who came to Cremona 38 years ago to learn his craft and never left. With a wry smile, when asked about how much a violin sold for, he joked that selling it was the difficult part. When pushed, he said that depending on the craftsman’s level of experience, they go for anything between 1000 and 25000 euros, averaging at about 8000 euros.

DSC_0199 (4) (2).jpg

The maestro at work

We watched as this talented individual walked us through the process of transforming knot-free spruce and much harder maple into a beautiful instrument. It was clear you had to be able to feel the wood to produce something so magnificent. Patience was also important – the wood had to be seasoned for a decade before it woudl be ready to use. We tried, with varying degrees of success, to use a tiny plane to smooth out the rear casing; it was considerably harder than he made it look. You studied the technical part at university, he said, and then after you graduated, you learnt how to make a violin.

DSC_0207 (5) (2)

The different shades cater to different tastes

We learnt a lot about the properties of the different woods used, and the skill involved in putting them together. An impressive forty coats of varnish were required to give it the high sheen we associate with such a fine musical instrument. The bow was equally a work of art. Made in part from horse hair, we laughed as Philippe told us that only the tails of the males could be used – for anatomical reasons, as the wee was never directed at the tail as it would be with a mare.

Pavia

IMG_5509

Visconti Castle, Pavia

Italy’s seventh oldest university is that of Pavia. The city’s status as a seat of learning was boosted by the Hapsburg Empire and some of the most elegant buildings in the town are its historic colleges. Painted in an egg yolk yellow shade of paint, they’re easy to find. In one of them, a statue of Alexandro Volta took pride of place in one of the cobbled courtyards. If his name sounds familiar, he was the man created with inventing the battery.

IMG_5523

Statue of Alexandro Volta

In comparison to other Italian university cities, such as Pisa, for instance, Pavia receives few visitors. That’s a shame, as it has a lovely vibe and with plenty of other attractions such as its restored towers and covered bridge, would make a good destination for a day trip. Italy’s high speed rail network has recently linked Pavia to the Genoa and Venice Frecciarossa service (the latter is now only 3 hours away), but should result in an increase in visitor numbers in time.

IMG_5532

Pavia’s covered bridge

The city sits on the banks of the River Ticino, a tributary of the mighty Po. Beside the river are little paths, though in times of heavy rain these flood, sometimes by several metres. Look out for stand up rowers, as it’s a tradition here. One of the best vantage points is from a fine dining restaurant such as Bardelli, on the banks of the river not far from the covered bridge. They serve typical Lombardy fare, such as pumpkin and pancetta pie, pappardelle with hare ragout and ricotta-stuffed squid.

Vigevano

Quaint Vigevano is one of those places that lends itself to strolling aimlessly. Begin in the Sforzesco Castle complex where you’ll find two interesting museums. The Leonardiana, as its name suggests, is devoted to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited the place on several occasions. Though some of the works of art on display are copies, such as the Mona Lisa, it’s interesting to see the diversity of subjects he sketched for his notebooks.

Across the courtyard is something altogether different. Vigevano is an important centre for shoe production, claiming to be the place where the stiletto heel was invented (though it’s not the only town to do so). Inside the palace is an exhibition devoted to shoes, one dated to around 1495 and uncovered by archaeologists that once belonged to the lady of the castle, Beatrice d’Este.

There’s also a green stiletto worn by Marilyn Monroe, tiny shoes worn by Chinese women whose feet were bound and the downright bizarre designs created by Alexander McQueen. Strangest of all is the shoe designed to see off unwanted paparazzi…

IMG_5573 (1)

You do not want to mess with the lady who wears this shoe

A short walk away is the delightful Piazza Ducale, laid out in the 15th century. It’s worth travelling to Vigevano just for this. Elegant porticoes frame a square dominated by a historic church. Inlaid into the cobbles are intricate shapes. The walkways shelter boutique shops and a plethora of cafes and bars. Come in the early evening, join the locals for the passeggiata and treat yourself to a glass of fizz and some yummy nibbles in a bar such as Caffè Commercio which boasts an ancient cellar.

IMG_5580

Piazza Ducale

Soncino

Tiny Soncino has a massive fortress built in the 10th century. Such defensive structures would once have been essential in these parts, and many of the towns and cities have fortifications – Sappionneta is another, for example, with a walled city complex that’s drawn the attention of UNESCO. The weather was not kind during our visit and despite umbrellas, it was hard to stay dry as the wind buffeted us around from our precarious position on the ramparts. On a fine day, you’d be able to appreciate not only the architecture of the fortress itself, but the views across Soncino from its ramparts.

A few blocks away, we took refuge from the weather in the town’s printing museum. Housed in what was once a Jewish printers, there were plenty of antique presses to admire and the typesets to create works in both Italian and Hebrew. The young curator will demonstrate for you and allow you to try for yourself. He was keen to practice his English and share his passion for The Beatles. One day, he said, he dreamed of seeing the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing, but in the meantime, he contented himself with playing their music, particularly The White Album, his favourite. I felt almost mean when I had to fess up that I didn’t share his passion for the band but left with a smile on my face.

Crespi d’Adda

My final recommendation for Lombardy beyond Milan is the UNESCO-listed Crespi d’Adda. Like Saltaire or Bourneville in the UK, this village was purpose built by a factory owner for his workers. The planned layout is obvious as soon as you pull in off the main road, with immaculate villas laid out in a grid pattern. A little further down the hill, set back behind a village green, are more spacious properties designed for the management. The owner himself lived in an even bigger home, a mock castle, overlooking one of the two rivers that enclose the triangular shaped site.

The factory itself is derelict. The gates are padlocked and its timepiece has stopped for good, a memorial to clocking off time. The company town was built in the 1920s by the Crespi family who ran a textile mill. The workers benefited not only from decent housing, but also a clinic, a school, a theatre and even a hydro-electric power station. When the factory closed in the 1970s, many of the families who lived in the homes they’d provided stayed on. They’ve had time to get used to their behemoth of a neighbour, but you can’t help feeling the ghosts of times past in this eerie place.

img_5647.jpg

The derelict factory

Thank you

I’d like to thank Ryanair and the Lombardy Tourism team, particularly our fixer Isabella, driver Gianluca and all of the lovely guides that brought their region to life. Though this was a press trip, all opinions expressed here are my own.

The dog ate my passport

The last couple of days have taught me a lot about unconditional love and even more about where not to leave dog treats.

992358B5-8D96-451E-B50D-1A902265CD4A

I’d been finalising details of a press trip to the Lombardy region of Italy. Everything had finally fallen into place: agreements with Ryanair on commissions, flight bookings and a programme from the PR agency that would take me to four Italian cities that I’d not visited before. The builders had gone home for the day and I’d wrapped up an article I was writing for an Icelandic client. It was late afternoon and already dark.

Einstein, my 12 year old golden retriever, was snoring at the foot of the stairs. Edison, his 8 year old nephew, was lying on the office rug behind my chair.This was the dog we’d nicknamed Ed the Shred on account of his obsession with tearing up paper he retrieved from waste paper baskets. My office, or more specifically its recycling bin, is one of his most favourite places in the whole house, along with the patch of kitchen floor directly beside the fridge and the sofa from which it’s his custom to bark at squirrels.

D525CB32-3CC6-48C0-8994-CBE0A4836AAA

I checked in for my flights and tucked the paperwork inside my passport, leaving it beside the keyboard on my desk. Next to it were a few dog treats that had been there all day. Just then, I had a message from my husband to say he’d be home early but had a work call. Would I pop the oven on so he could get a jump on dinner? Distracted, I got up and went downstairs. On autopilot I started to make dinner, tired from all the early starts and late nights and stress that come with a house renovation. Normally, Edison would have been under my feet, keen to be first in line if tasters are handed out, ready to pounce on anything that accidentally finds itself on the floor. I was so tired that I didn’t notice he wasn’t there.

As my husband ate dinner, he commented on Ed’s absence. Not long afterwards, we heard the bump as he jumped off a bed (another of his favourite places) and clattered downstairs. A little later on, I went back up to my office. The dog treats were still where I’d left them, but where the passport had been was a big, fat, empty bit of desk. Slowly I put two and two together. Ed must have smelt the dog treats and then found the temptation of shredding his beloved paper just too much to resist. Entering the bedroom, I spotted the chewed up remains of my passport scattered across the bedspread and my stomach did a back flip. He hadn’t, had he?

He had.

31314FCE-B3A7-44B2-8FE1-5BBEC11CCEF8

Hitherto what was on the desk rather than in a bin beneath it had always been left untouched. Until now. Initially speechless, I picked up what remained of my passport, a ragtag collection of slightly soggy pieces, most about the size of a penny. The photo page was largely intact, save for the passport number in the top corner. A couple of visas were still recognisable, though they had chunks missing from the corners.

At first, all I could do was utter the word no, over and over. Google was my next thought, followed by the Passport Office website. At first, things looked hopeful. There was an appointment available in London the following morning, and if I paid for the premium fast track service, it seemed I might be able to get a new passport in just four hours. But as I read on, my heart sank. If the passport was lost, stolen or damaged, the notes said, then I would have to make an appointment for the weekly service.

Hopes dashed, I read and reread the website. Calling the Passport Office hotline, the voice on the other end of the phone was sympathetic but unable to help. Rules were rules, unfortunately, and there was no way I could replace the passport in the 36 hours I had before my flight was due to depart. The earliest available appointment for the service I needed was two hours and ten minutes after I was scheduled to take off.

There was nothing for it but to fess up. Mortified, I called the agency that was managing the press trip and recounted the whole sorry saga to the PR lady’s colleague who happened to be working late. I followed it up with an email to the PR lady herself. Apologising didn’t seem enough. Fortunately, she was very understanding and even offered to see if Ryanair could do anything. I didn’t hold out much hope. Opportunities like this were still a big deal for a second career travel writer like myself and I’d blown it. I was furious with myself for being so careless. Sensing my bleak mood, Ed sat down beside me and offered me his paw. I stroked his head as he looked up at me with big brown eyes and a broad smile. How could I be cross with a face like that?

A7BD0866-69AA-4A01-952D-C4DF2CFF38DF

The following morning there was a glimmer of hope. While I was out getting a form for a new passport and organising a countersignatory for the photo, we received a phone call. There was a slim chance that I might be able to fly without a passport if I had a colour photocopy, they said. And I did! Two in fact, though one was a bit blurry. I sent them over by email and began the waiting game. All Wednesday afternoon I tried to keep busy. Edison seemed to know something was up, though of course remained blissfully unaware of the trouble he’d caused. I couldn’t stay mad at my goofball fur baby for long, and he stretched out on the office rug while I wrote another article. Throughout the day, I received progress updates from the PR lady telling me that as yet there was no news but Ryanair staff were working on it with border officials in Italy and the UK. I was mortified at the trouble I’d caused. By 5 o’clock, I’d pretty much given up hope.

And then the email came. At first, I didn’t believe what I was seeing, so I read it a second time and then a third. But it was the news I’d hoped for. Both border agencies had accepted Ryanair’s request to let me travel with a colour photocopy and email authorisation. My flight was rearranged so that I could still attend the Passport Office appointment. I was going. Eight hours later than planned, but I was going after all.

Today has been a strange experience. I arrived at the airport car park at about the time I had expected, but instead of going to the check in desk, I left the suitcase in the car and hopped on the Stansted Express instead. By 11am I’d had my replacement passport approved, with delivery confirmed by the middle of next week, and was back on the train. The Ryanair check in staff, wide eyed and slack jawed, admired the photo I showed them of a very innocent looking Edison while a manager confirmed my email authorisation was legit.

On arrival at Bergamo Airport I was whisked into the office (not the first time I’ve had to wait for permission to enter a country, as you might remember if you read my Abkhazia post). The officials were very apologetic for the delay and for me catching them in the middle of their dinner. Smiles all round and the now obligatory laughing at the photos of the dog and passport done, my precious photocopy was stamped and in I was. I did have a bit of a moment when they asked did I need to go to the consulate in Milan, but luckily for me they pretty much changed their minds straightaway.

134AFBA4-BEAB-430F-8A26-D3DCA5D3E54F

And so here I am, in Italy, minus a passport. I’m pretty sure Edison will be curled up beside Einstein, keeping a watchful eye on my husband’s dinner plate lest a small piece of chicken or a stray chip finds its way to the floor.

Why I’m loathe to take the hotel’s airport transfer

One of the more stressful aspects of independent solo travel is the journey from the airport to the hotel. In some cases, the availability of public transport makes this transfer cheap and easy – so long as you’re not carrying too much luggage. I’m a big fan of hopping on the metro or train – as stations don’t move and are usually clearly marked, the chance of jumping off at the wrong place is pretty slim. Buses can be a little more tricky, though using Google maps and tracking my position has helped a lot. It’s frustrating when the bus sails right by where you want to get off – or doesn’t stop anywhere near.

airport-605282

In others, however, the need to arrange your own transfer can leave you vulnerable to the attentions of hustlers. Taxi drivers in some parts of the world can be notorious for ripping off the newly arrived and unsuspecting traveller. Insisting that the driver uses a meter helps, if it’s working of course, though there’s nothing to stop an unscrupulous driver taking a roundabout route to the city. Even if you know where the airport and the hotel are in relation to each other, traffic jams and other congestion bottlenecks might make the obvious route more time-consuming. The driver might be doing you a favour with that detour – or leading you a merry dance.

Often, there is no meter, and you’re then at the mercy of your haggling skills and the likelihood that the driver will honour the price you agreed. I’ve had drivers pull over in en route – thank you Delhi – to demand a bigger fare. If you agree, you’ve just cost yourself more money; if you don’t you risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a pile of heavy luggage.

India Old Delhi street scene

In some cities, official taxis operate within the airport. They charge a fixed rate for a transfer to specific neighbourhoods and you pay the desk rather than the driver. Lima is one such airport; I’ve used Taxi Green almost every time I’ve been there, though improvements to public transit were on the cards when I last visited. You’ll pay a little more than if you walk out to the airport perimeter and flag down a taxi yourself, but the cars are in better condition and the drivers have been checked out.

Shared shuttles are a good value compromise where they’re available. In Santiago, the Chilean capital, you can prebook a place on a shuttle for a fraction of the private taxi price. Even if your flight is delayed, they just put you on the next shuttle leaving for your neighbourhood and off you go. Unfortunately, relatively few airports have them – and certainly that’s the case for the kind of offbeat destinations I prefer.

DSC_0003 (2)

Which brings me to the hotel transfer. They tend to be the most expensive option, but when they work, the least stressful. A driver will be waiting for you with your name on a board and in theory, there’s no hanging around before you’re safely on your way to the hotel. But things can and do go wrong. I’ve arrived to find there’s no one waiting on more than a handful of occasions. As you wander around looking for where the driver might have disappeared to, other drivers swarm like bees to a pot of honey hoping to pick up a fare. In some cases, I’ve rung the hotel only to be told there’s been a problem and advised to get a taxi instead. Other times, they’ve asked me to wait and I’ve had to spend the next hour fighting off unwanted attention until the driver’s finally arrived.

Morocco donkey cart

Sometimes, taking a hotel’s airport transfer is the only practical option. I’m returning to Fez in Morocco soon, but on a flight that doesn’t get in until almost midnight. My riad, in the heart of the medina, is, I’m told, hard to find without help even in daylight. So I’ve booked their reasonably-priced transfer and shall have to keep my fingers crossed that the driver’s waiting for me when I emerge into the arrivals hall.

Have you had any bad experiences arriving at an airport? Do share your horror stories – but I might just hold off reading them until I’m safely tucked up in my riad…

A day trip to San Marino

When I started planning my trip to San Marino, I knew almost nothing about the country except that it was small. It is also one of only three nations in the world, along with Lesotho and Vatican City, that are totally surrounded by the land of a single other country. You can see the sea from San Marino, but you have to cross Italian territory first.

E0FAEC3F-BF41-4C5B-9F71-4AE5F86318F3

To reach San Marino, you need to enter from Italy. There’s a regular bus service which leaves from Rimini station and costs 5 euros. You can find the timetable here. Rather than stay in Rimini off season (Italians have long since fled the beach by mid-October, even though Brits would still consider it warm enough) I chose to base myself in Bologna. You can read about the food tour I did here. It adds a little under an hour to the journey if you travel between Bologna and Rimini by high speed Frecciabianca train. It costs surprisingly little for the train ticket (under 30 euros return for a first class seat, cheaper in second, and cheaper still if you opt for the slower regional train).

The bus from Rimini drops its passengers in one of San Marino’s car parks. The city of San Marino occupies a lofty position on top of Monte Titano, and visitors have to be prepared for its steeply sloping streets. In a few places, there are lifts, which is a boon for those with buggies or aching legs.

My first stop was at the tourist information office, to pick up a visa and a map, though strictly speaking, neither was necessary. For a fee of 5 euros, you can have a stamp in your passport, which seemed to me to be the best souvenir of my visit. That was, until I discovered the San Marino Duck Store later in the day, which had the biggest range of rubber ducks you could imagine, including a Star Wars stormtrooper that lit up when it came into contact with water. That was husband’s present sorted then.

C7D47379-EAE3-4F08-AEA6-2FC1B2052C1D

From there, it was a short stroll uphill to the first of San Marino’s three towers. Called the Guaita, it’s the oldest of the trio, built in the 11th century. There was an interesting series of exhibits which recounted the tower’s history – at one time it was a prison – and a breathtaking view from its ramparts.

Visibility was excellent the day I visited, giving me a glimpse of the Adriatic in one direction and the Apennines the other. I was content with looking at the Second Tower, known as the Cesta, from the Guaita; a path joins the two, but the Cesta located on the tallest peak and if I’m honest I’m not interested enough in weaponry to have made the hike worthwhile. (The Third Tower, the Montale, isn’t open to the public.

4C3105E2-C31F-4622-B2FA-B7B857BB0554

Instead, I headed downhill for a spot of lunch and a visit to the Museum of Curiosities. This museum houses a quirky and eclectic collection of oddities. Amongst other things, you’ll find Venetian platform shoes, designed with flooding in mind, and a German mug with a porcelain half-lid to help moustached men deal with the problem of foam on their facial hair. It’s tacky and voyeuristic, but go with the right mindset and it’s a lot of fun too.

C2A53098-331F-4361-8824-2F80AA9234C3

The last visit of the day was to the San Marino parliament, housed in the Palazzo Pubblico. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, as it is unofficially called, is the world’s oldest continually operating republic. It also has a claim on the title of world’s smallest republic, depending on whether you measure Nauru by its land mass or include its marine territories as well. The parliament building was grand, with an imposing staircase leading up to the chamber where its government convenes. On the wall at the top of the staircase is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. San Marino conferred dual citizenship on the US President in 1861 in recognition of the “high consideration and fraternity” they felt with the USA.

For a small country, I was pleasantly surprised by the range of things to do – there were plenty more museums that I didn’t choose to look around, including the Museum of Torture which I didn’t have the stomach for. I’m not sure I’d choose to stay overnight, nor visit in the height of summer. But on a sunny October day, it made for an interesting diversion from Bologna and had a lot going for it.

AFBF19D7-92CC-435B-A69F-C2140609ECFE

Footnote

I’m grateful for the complimentary tickets I received for the Guaita and Palazzo Pubblico, as well as the discounted admission I was given at the Museum of Curiosities. All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.

Review of Secret Food Tours Bologna

You know you’re going to like someone when they meet you with a smile and a croissant. Raffaella, our delightful guide from Secret Food Tours, certainly knew how to win us over. Our group of six soon gelled and bonded over a shared love of food – and Bologna.

5DEEDE90-9578-40A8-8F78-71E0B36596E1

We met under the Due Torri. The city that they call La Grassa (the fat one) is known for its food, but climb the 498 steps to the top of its tallest tower, Torre Asinelli, and you’ll go some way to easing the guilt of a glutton. Such towers were built by the residents of Bologna in mediaeval times to provide a safe haven in times of strife – in those days you wouldn’t have found a door at ground level. But interesting though Bologna’s past undoubtedly is, we weren’t on the tour for the history, we were there for the food. It was time to get walking.

Fellow foodies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bologna is the home of spaghetti bolognese, but ask for this pasta dish and you’d be laughed out of town. Instead, you’ll need to ask for Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow cooked meat sauce tossed through fat strips of fresh pasta. We sampled it in a backstreet trattoria alongside half a plate of tortellini cooked perfectly al dente and they were both exquisite. Having watched a table of nimble-fingered women twist tiny squares of fresh pasta into those tiny tortellini shapes gave us some inkling into the work involved. This is nothing like the pasta you’d buy in the supermarket and definitely a treat for the taste buds.

The Quadrilatero, Bologna’s old market area, is crammed full of delicatessens, food stores and cafés, but it helps to have a guide as knowledgeable as Raffaella to navigate such a maze. As we strolled in and around the streets surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, we learned about mortadella, prosciutto and even balsamic vinegar, even though the best of the latter hails from nearby Modena.

FAFD4826-4E0C-40A4-B1F6-9276E1AA39FC

In a store stocked with huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, we discovered why some have horizontal scratches – these are the ones that fail quality control and are sold off cheap. The very best thing about sampling with a local is you try things you wouldn’t otherwise be tempted to consume. For me, ciccioli was a revelation – the ugliest slice of meat on the plate but – oh my! – also the tastiest.

This was my second visit to Bologna and last time, I’d walked right past its oldest osteria, a place with no signage that’s been serving thirsty Bolognesi since 1465. True osterias, like this one, don’t actually serve food, just alcohol. But Italians like to eat while they imbibe and so it’s the norm to carry in a parcel of cooked meats and cheeses to eat while you drink.

Raffaella had something different for us – a rich, sweet, gooey rice cake that was the ideal accompaniment to a glass or two of Pignoletto. It’s an Italian sparkling wine that to an uneducated palate is not unlike Prosecco. But while 400 million bottles of the latter are produced each year, Pignoletto production amounts to a paltry 11 million. That said, I enjoyed its frothy bubbles so much I pushed my way through the throng outside to pay a return visit the following evening. At two euros a glass (a small one) it was utterly quaffable and decidedly moreish. If word gets out, or if I can find it here in the UK, that figure of 11 million will shoot up.

89E2B4A4-01E7-4BE8-A5B8-FFBA2B1C58C5

It wouldn’t be an Italian food tour if it didn’t include an ice cream stop, and this tour was no exception. We popped into a cute little place not far from where we began to sample some lusciously creamy gelato. I think I may have disgraced the family, however, as I ordered the zabaione flavour, commenting that my Mum used to make this dessert for us when I was a child. Given the alcohol content, that’s probably not something I should have admitted to, but the ice cream was every bit as flavoursome as Mum’s creation.

AF68BDBA-B0BC-461F-A18B-779A453C82C2

Now, you’ll probably have noticed there’s a distinct lack of names and addresses in this blog, but that’s deliberate – it was a secret food tour, after all. If you want to find out exactly where to eat in Bologna, you’ll have to book a place yourself, but I can promise you that if you love your food, you won’t regret it. Buon Appetito!

I’m grateful that I was offered a complimentary ticket for Secret Food Tours’ Bologna walking tour in exchange for a review; the opinions expressed here are mine, however.

https://www.secretfoodtours.com/bologna/

Gainsborough’s House with Greater Anglia

When was the last time you looked at a painting? I don’t mean a casual glance, I mean really study the detail? If, like me, it’s been a while, then you might want to head to Sudbury before October 27th for a visit to Gainsborough’s House, which showcases the largest collection of the artist’s work in the country. No matter how much of an art philistine you might be, you’ll find yourself impressed by the subtleties of form and light and colour in the paintings that are on display.

E650F926-D3C7-42A2-9CEF-2323562602C6

However, you’ll need to get your skates on. The house closes for extensive remodelling in just a few weeks’ time. Downstairs is an exhibition on loan from a private collector, featuring works not only by Gainsborough, but also Turner, Constable and Lawrence. For me, surprisingly, the standout was a large painting not by Gainsborough but by John Constable of Salisbury Cathedral surrounded by meadows. When the museum closes its doors, they’ll be returned to their owner and will no longer be on public view. Upstairs, the comprehensive works will go into fine art storage. Some will be temporarily loaned to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, but it’s an awful lot easier – and cheaper – to hop on a Greater Anglia train instead.

10. Constable -Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows copy.jpg

Painting by John Constable © Private collection on loan to Gainsborough’s House, Suffolk

Reached by train via the aptly named Gainsborough Line, Sudbury’s an easy day out by rail from London or East Anglia. This sleepy Suffolk town has surprisingly much to offer the visitor, not least the skull of Simon of Sudbury, hidden in the vestry of St Gregory’s church, and Vanners, one of several working silk mills in the town. Incidentally, when the new gallery is unveiled in 2021, you can expect to see Vanners’ silks adorning the walls.

Nevertheless, the star attraction is the house that acclaimed artist Thomas Gainsborough grew up in. He was born there in 1727 and as a child developed a love of sketching and painting landscapes. One of the obituaries published after Gainsborough’s death said simply: “Nature was his teacher, and the woods of Suffolk his academy.” Travelling by train gives you time to appreciate such leafy views instead of concentrating on the road, something that the team at Greater Anglia would like to remind you with their latest promotion, Room with a View. That said, you’ll travel across rather than beside the imposing Chappel Viaduct. Of course, you could always make a day of it and alight at Chappel & Wakes Colne station for the East Anglian Railway Museum to get the best of both worlds.

C6720C14-F2CE-4EDD-A739-E52182B473DA

But I digress. Packed off to London at a tender age to hone his skill, Gainsborough’s artistic bent meant that earning a living as a portrait painter was potentially a lucrative profession. But he hated painting people, calling it “the curs’d face business”. Where possible, Gainsborough would pay as much attention as he possibly could to the background, lavishing the setting with what the churlish might describe as superfluous details of flora and fauna. He was less concerned with getting the faces right, and some of his finished pieces have a distinct touch of the wooden artist’s mannequin about them. To be fair, it didn’t seem to bother his clients much. Nor Gainsborough himself – when the work dried up he moved on, plying his trade not only in Sudbury, but also in Bath and London.

Gainsborough’s landscapes are nothing short of magnificent. In “Wooded Landscape with Cattle by a Pool”, first shown in 1782, the light is captured perfectly. The cattle, in shadow, and the crepuscular shafts of light on the pond complement each other perfectly. As a photograph, such a scene would be impressive; as a painting, it blows your mind. In “Wooded Landscape with Old Peasant and Donkeys outside a Barn, Ploughshare and Distant Church”, the peasant slumps onto his staff, donkeys resting at his feet, a little weary from a hard day’s work but pleased with what he’s achieved. It’s such details that create such a strong connection with those who view them today. Let’s face it, we’ve all had days like that peasant.

At Gainsborough House, the garden too is a delight. A 400 year old mulberry tree takes centre stage; think about it – that tree would have been there when Gainsborough was a boy. Although it’s the wrong variety to be used for producing silk (how neat would that have been?) its fruit is used to make jam to gift to the gallery’s patrons. There’s also a quince tree and a medlar; if you want to try those, Wilkins of Tiptree products are sold in the museum shop along with an extensive range of gifts.

To find out about timetables and fares on the Gainsborough Line, visit the Greater Anglia website. For Gainsborough House exhibit details and opening times, click here. While I am grateful for the complimentary train ticket and admission, all views expressed are my own.

A beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast

I’ve just returned from my second visit to Lithuania after a gap of 12 years. This time, I was a guest of the tourist boards representing the coastal regions that comprise Klaipeda, Palanga, Kretinga and the Curonian Spit. Since my 2007 trip, Vilnius and Kaunas, Lithuania’s two largest cities, have become increasingly popular with city breakers, but the coast remains overlooked by many. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer the tourist. So let me try to tempt you – here’s my beginner’s guide to the Lithuanian coast.

How to get there from the UK

IMG_4354.jpg

Our hosts arranged flights for us from Luton to Palanga-Klaipeda Airport with budget carrier Wizz Air. It departs at 5.55am, the first flight out of the day. It’s a very early start, but that has the advantage of a late morning arrival despite the two-hour time difference, so if you don’t live too far from the airport and want to get a jump on the sightseeing, it might suit. Flights depart once daily on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Alternatively, Ryanair currently fly to Palanga-Klaipeda on Tuesdays and Saturdays, departing Stansted at a similar time of day – 6.10am. Neither airline, therefore, offers a particularly sociable schedule, but you can always catch up on sleep when you get there.

Getting around

We were ferried around with private transfers, but there is a bus connection that serves Palanga-Klaipeda airport. Bus #100 travels south from the airport, stopping in the resort town of Palanga before continuing on to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city, where it terminates. The airport website provides a very handy route map:

Fares are a very reasonable 1,40 euro to Palanga and 2,50 euro to Klaipeda. The buses are timed to connect with inbound and outbound flights. This is the schedule:

https://www.stops.lt/klaipeda/#bus/100/b-a/en

If you’re heading over to the Curonian Spit, then you’ll need to catch a ferry from Klaipeda. The Old Ferry carries foot passengers and bicycles at a cost of 1 euro each; boats depart on the hour and half hour during the day and less frequently in the evening. Buses connect to Nida, the main settlement, at the other side. If you’ve rented a car, you’ll need to use the New Ferry, which runs every twenty minutes during the day and costs just over 12 euros. Note that there are no public transport connections from the spit’s terminal. Full timetables can be found here.

Where to stay

Our hosts were keen to show us a range of different accommodation, so we spent a night at four hotels.

In Klaipeda, we were based at the contemporary Hotel Dangė, an easy walk from the centre of Klaipeda and its bars and restaurants. Deluxe doubles with balcony come in at around £90-95, but their economy rooms are available for about half that amount in low season (and about £70/night next July). Note that there’s no lift; my room was on the top floor which meant climbing four flights of stairs with luggage.

On the Curonian Spit, we stayed at the lovely Nidus, set in leafy grounds about a fifteen minute stroll to the centre of Nida along a path surrounded by woodland. The double rooms were spacious and had an adjacent sitting room and also a balcony. Booking.com has such rooms for about £55 in low season and about £140/night next summer. There were other hotels closer to the centre of Nida but this would be quieter in summer.

There was an event on in Palanga so we stayed at a resort hotel a few miles out of town, the Atostogų Parkas. In the off season, you can pick up a double here for about £35 and upgrade to include spa access for about £10-12 more. Colleagues spoke highly of the pool and jacuzzi facilities but I found it a bit cut off. Room sizes varied considerably; ask for a larger room if it’s available.

IMG_4261

I was a little unsure of what to expect for our final hotel, located on the edge of the beach resort of Šventojias some of the artwork was squarely aimed at the male market. Décor was strange, with skulls and devils and Americana all rolled into one crazy package. But the staff worked really hard to make us feel welcome and it was a five minute walk to the beach. Most accommodation at the Elija is apartments; hotel rooms start at around £40 in low season and about £15 more next summer.

Things to do: Klaipeda

Klaipeda’s a good starting point for a Lithuanian coastal region tour. There are plenty of attractions in a relatively small area and it’s easy to get to.

The sculpture trail

The compact centre of Klaipeda is littered with quirky sculptures and it’s fun to take a stroll to seek them out. Our guide Diana showed us some of them and told us the tales associated with each. The cutest without doubt is the Thaumaturge Old Town Little Mouse, which bears the inscription “Transform your thoughts into words and words will turn into miracles”.

IMG_3937

Not far away, perched on the roof of a house near the River Danė, is a chimney sweep – touching his clothes or buttons is considered lucky. Fortunately, there’s a separate button on the wall of the house nearer to ground level which offers the same reward. There are plenty more works of art to discover, depicting everything from coins to dragons, but a sure fire winner with the kids will be the Black Ghost that haunts the dockside near the site of Klaipeda’s castle. Legend has it that a ghost appeared to a castle guard warning of grain and timber shortages, before disappearing back into the fog. Whether his prediction came true or not, I don’t know, but younger visitors will love clambering inside and popping their head into the hood of his cloak. Rock fans – this one’s for you too: Alice Cooper raved about the sculpture on his social media feed.

Maritime and historical treasures

Though the warehouse district was largely destroyed in the 1854 fire and the centre of Klaipeda was heavily bombed in the war, you can still get a sense of what the place was like if you take a walk in the reconstructed old town and past the rebuilt warehouses that line the river bank. The 39/45 museum, opened in 2018, is a must for history buffs. Across a series of rooms, visitors can discover what the Nazi occupation meant for the city and its occupants. The exhibit titled “Klaipeda assault” helps visitors visualise the extensive bombing during the siege of the city before the Red Army rolled in.

IMG_3953

In the Blacksmith’s Museum, Dionizos Varkalis showed us the collection of wrought iron crosses rescued from the city’s cemeteries are displayed in a purpose built space resembling a church. Regular jewellery making classes are held on site. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of Klaipeda is the sailing ship Meridianas which is moored beside the Birzos Bridge. Built in Finland in 1948, the vessel was used by the Klaipeda Maritime School for training purposes and has been a popular quayside restaurant since Soviet times – though in these days you had to flash the cash and have the right connections to get in.

Švyturys brewery

Merchant J.W.Reincke opened a brewery in Klaipeda in 1784 – the eagle on his family coat of arms appears today on the bottles of what’s now called Švyturys beer. The brewery makes a range of flavourful stouts, ales and lagers using German methods of  production. Tastings are offered, but book a guide and you can learn not only about how the beer is made but also how food pairings subtly alter the taste. The most popular beer is Švyturys Ekstra; according to our guide, it’s best consumed accompanied by chicken hearts. I’m not so sure about the latter, but a glass of Ekstra certainly slid down a treat! If you haven’t got the stomach for offal either, try Baltijos, an Oktoberfest-style dark lager perfect with carrots, or perhaps a glass of Pale Ale which, I found, goes very well with chick peas. Who knew?

IMG_3968.jpg

Things to do: Curonian Spit

Don’t write this off as a strip of featureless sand: Lithuanians liken the Curonian Spit to an outdoor spa. Its close knit community look out for each other – this is the kind of place where you don’t have to lock your doors.

The sand dunes

The sand dunes on the 98km long Curonian Spit aren’t just any old sand dunes, they are UNESCO-listed sand dunes, recognised for their cultural as well as physical importance. Sand transported by Baltic Sea waves piled high to form this barrier island, which was later colonised by grasses and forest. It is simply magnificent, but as an ex-Geography teacher, I am of course biased.

IMG_4074 (1).jpg

In the 17th and 18th centuries, logging destabilised the fragile ecosystem, threatening settlements as the sand was no longer anchored down by tree roots. But from the 19th century, the area has been successfully managed so people and nature can co-exist. We walked to the top of the dunes which buried the village of Nagliai over 300 years ago. Taking a hike up the “grey dunes” was made easier by the previous day’s rain – the compacted surface made lighter work of the climb than would have been afforded by dry sand.

DSC_0210 (2).jpg

Fun fact (at least for geographers): grey dunes are so-called as they take their name from the carpet of moss, lichen and grasses which bind the fine particles together and prevent them migrating.

Juodkrantė’s Hill of Witches

A pathway leading from the main road in the village of Juodkrantė takes wanderers through a magical forest. This wooded parabolic dune is dubbed the Hill of Witches, taking its name from pagan celebrations which take place here on Midsummer’s Eve.

The path is lined not only by trees but by around a hundred quirky wooden sculptures, benches and elaborately carved arches. The characters you see reflect Lithuania’s rich folk and pagan heritage, depicting an eclectic mix of fairy tale protagonists, devils and monsters. There’s plenty of evidence for the Lithuanian sense of humour, too, not least in the witches’ saggy tits! Though it’s free to wander through the forest alone, taking a guide and hearing those stories will definitely enhance your visit. Our lovely PR Angelina, who grew up on the Spit, regaled us with tales as we snapped away in this photogenic spot.

70494006_10217930609164602_5277017774458142720_n

The sundial at the Parnidis Dune

Located at the top of the 52m high Parnidis Dune, you’ll find a giant sundial, the only place in Lithuania where the sun rises and sets on the water. The centrepiece is a granite obelisk, from which shadows fall on a series of stone slabs. At noon, the shadow points due north. Each of these steps references a different month, with additional stones for the equinoxes and solstices. The sundial is richly decorated with icons and runes representing holidays and saints. It’s a wild and windswept place, open to the elements, but even on a day when the weather throws everything it has at you, the views along the Spit are breathtaking. Check out the nearby sculpture of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who visited the dunes with his partner Simone de Beauvoir in 1965.

IMG_4086

Nida

The quaint village of Nida, facing the lagoon side of the Spit, is packed with charming cottages. The traditional architecture features a cross or pole on the top of the front gable as well as wooden fretwork adornments. Bold colours are common – and advantageous to fishermen who could spot their homes from out at sea. One houses an amber museum in which you’ll find the largest lump of raw resin in the country, another an ethnographic fishermen’s museum with a-ha style animations projected on the walls and everyday items suspended on strings.

IMG_4099.jpg

You’ll soon spot the colourful wooden weather vanes along the waterfront: every fisherman had a mark on his boat to show where he came from. From the weather vanes, you can tell which village a fisherman came from and a little about his wealth and status. A black cross on a white background signified a man from Juodkrantė, for instance. I really liked Nida, and would love to return in the spring, if nothing else, to have another scrumptious piece of cake from Gardumėlis bakery opposite the cottage pictured above.

Nida weather vanes

Things to do: Kretinga

Kretinga is nicknamed Lithuania’s Vatican, with five functioning monasteries within the district. If the weather’s not playing ball on the coast, it’s worth the short detour inland to see what Kretinga and its surrounds have to offer.

Church of the Annunciation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary

Built between 1610 and 1617, this church is home to the oldest organ in the country. On a wall near the altar there’s a panel of little silver legs placed there by worshippers as a symbol of thanks and good health. The crypt houses the metal coffins of the Chodkiewicz family whose donations funded the church and Franciscan monastery tasked with the pastoral care of local residents. In a side room, four skulls set into a pedestal to commemorate the 120 souls whose remains were found interred in its walls. Our guide Diana told us that when the monks held their first service after the Soviets left, they emerged from the crypt onto the main altar, marking the dawn of independence. What an emotional moment that would have been for the congregation.

DSC_0010 (2)

Dungeons of St Anthony

Under what’s now a school are the dungeons of St Anthony, used as a prison by both the Nazis and the Soviets. In a side room, a now inocuous-looking well was used to torture those held captive. The graffiti on the walls offers a fascinating insight into the mental torment endured by the inmates, with crude calendars, churches, names, dates and places scratched into the plaster. One bears the name of Paul Sansarrat, a French POW who escaped more than once and eventually participated in the Normandy Landings.

Count Tiškevičius manor and winter garden

This museum complex is centred on an impressive manor house, built in the second half of the 19th century, and indoor winter garden. Across the road, a more humble building contains a collection of artefacts that reference everyday life in the past, covering everything from Shrove Tuesday masks to traditional Lowlander dress. There’s even a model of the devil, dressed to impress. They say he’ll offer you gold to get you on side, but when you wake up in the morning, all you’ll have is a pocket full of stones. To uncover his true identity, step on his shoe – if it’s the devil in disguise, there’ll be a cloven hoof where the foot should be.

The Japanese Garden

Located just outside Kretinga is Europe’s largest Japanese garden. It’s the work of Šarunas Kasmauskas, a former military doctor, who doesn’t believe in leisurely retirements. This 16 hectare plot, once open fields, has been transformed into an oasis of calm and colour. The jolly Kasmauskas was quick to point out he hadn’t received an EU handout: “I don’t trust this ‘company’ – I’m Eurosceptic!” he joked. The extensive bonsai collection contains miniature trees that are over 250 years old, specially imported from Japan, each worth thousands of euros. Five hundred or so sakura trees, providing the famous cherry blossom in spring, have been planted with the help of many individual sponsors.

There’s still plenty of work to do, thanks to Kasmauskas’ ambitious vision for the place, but it’s been open to visitors for eight years already and looks set to become better and better as the years pass. And as for upkeep, Kasmauskas had a tip for gardeners that I’m very keen to test out. He said that if you cut grass under a young moon, you’ll have to do so again in five days, but if you wait, you can leave your mower in the shed for two or three weeks.

Japanese garden

Things to do: Palanga

Palanga is Lithuania’s most established tourist resort. A strip of bars and restaurants on J. Basanaviciaus Street leads down to a wooden pier and the Baltic Sea. Rows of benches face the sea, and during our visit most were occupied by old ladies in headscarfs, bringing to mind a bus load of pensioners. But this is a family-friendly resort too, and in season the beaches would be fabulous. In case you weren’t convinced the emphasis is on fun, the motto “Deligas quem diligas” (“Do what you like”) is embedded in the pavement.

DSC_0016 (3) (2)

Walking tour

Palanga’s well-heeled have invested their money in property and as a result there’s much to please those with an interest in architecture. From the traditional to the modern, Palanga’s private homes, apartments and hotels span centuries of style. Some wouldn’t have looked out of place in the southern states of the USA. It’s very green, too, with plenty of trees and parkland to enjoy. Our guide Antanas did a great job giving us some context and his sometimes irreverent commentary, particularly where dates were concerned (“1932? Who cares, actually?”), was a treat.

The Count’s Palace

Palanga’s home to the late 19th century Palace of Count Feliks Tyszkiewicz, which is tucked away in the heart of Birute’s Park. The park has both informal and formal planting, with sculptures and eccentric works of art semi-hidden within the trees and shrubs. The beds in front of the palace were a showstopper, a riot of purples, mauves, creams and white that offset the elegant building and its fountains to perfection. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular choice for couples to stage their wedding photos.

The amber museum

Inside the Count’s palace are several floors devoted to amber. It wasn’t the only amber museum we visited – there was a smaller one in Nida – but this one had the wow factor. Huge chunks of raw and polished amber including the Sun Stone, sizeable pieces with insects suspended in the resin, jewellery and even clocks showcased the versatility of this colourful material.

Amber

A special mention: Šventoji’s beaches

Palanga’s big event did us a favour – instead of staying on the convenient but busy strip, we were a five minute walk from this gorgeous beach. The sun obliged with an appearance just before we were due to leave for the airport – isn’t that typical? – but a walk along the beach was just the thing to blow the cobwebs away and take one last look at this wonderful coastline.

71118932_1391765140979980_7264900360429371392_n

Thanks Lithuania – and especially to all the witty, entertaining and straight-talking people that helped make this trip fun. I will be back and I won’t leave it 12 years this time.