29 March 2016

tuscan adventures

From Florence to Lucca - Italian Dairies Day 4

It was a busy day this one. Three major destinations in less than 12 hours! That's a lot of being a "tourist" for even the most hardened of travelers! It all starts with the morning to work our way around Florence before being guided through Pisa and Lucca. So a hearty breakfast was required. Once we'd scoffed our way through as much continental breakfast and cups of coffee humanly possible, the cobbled streets of Florence soon beckoned.

Florence from the bell tower
800+ steps!
It didn't look very high really but 413 steps later I felt very differently. I'm not great with heights even though I've been up most of the worlds tallest buildings! The bell tower of the Duomo (Florence Cathedral or Santa Maria Del Fiore) gives fabulous views of the city and the Tuscan hills beyond. The steps, although awkward in places were surprisingly easy (must be getting fitter!) At the entrance we purchased a mini pass (around 15 euros) which lets you into five individual places, (the tower and the cathedral dome being two of them.) Well we're always one for a challenge so having looked at the wonderful view from the bell tower we head almost immediately up the 460+ steps of the cathedral dome! Same view, yes, but getting up close to the dome's incredible painting is something else (see image below.) 

We walked through HELL! So graphic were its details and so high up were we, I didn't really want to hang around for long. Although a traffic jam of people, looking at said painting ensured we'd spend longer than necessary in this most amazing of buildings. That aside it was well worth the effort. One thing. Why do people write stupid graffiti on ancient walls? It was everywhere; "I waz here" penned ditties! Earliest I could find was from around 1967! Still didn't look nice. 

"413 steps to the bells"

Florence cathedral
The Last Judgement by Vasari and Zuccari
So after the towers, a spot of lunch and a quick gander around the streets and shops we were speeding our way towards Pisa (about 1hr 30mins coach ride) from Florence. If I can be absolutely honest, other than the tower and its adjoining museums and the church there doesn't seem to be much else. Just lots of tacky souvenir shops outside the walls; awful. When you first look at the tower you're struck by just how little it seems to lean! I know they have pulled it up slightly but still it didn't seem to be leaning as much as I thought. We took the typical picture, although we tried to be a little different (see below). I'll let you decide if it worked or not. And that really was that. It was impressive and beautiful and leaning so I suppose it ticked all the boxes really. 

leaning tower of pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The author "not" succeeding in his picture attempts
Our next stop was Lucca, a medieval walled city that just so happened to be the birthplace of Puccini. And remains a city of sound with its summer festival. Anyone for a bit of Lionel Richie this summer? It's a beautiful city and if you enjoy looking at your churches there are plenty to choose from. Our guide told us it was the city of a 100 churches. Felt more like a 1000! Although I'm not complaining before anyone asks. Ornate buildings, beautiful courtyards and squares make it a town to get lost in. And that we did, all be it with the help of our guide (Angela). Who incidentally was very good. Knowledgeable, friendly and clearly passionate about her job. If you are ever in the region then a stop off here is highly recommended. As the sun started to sink between the nearby hills we were whisked back to Florence and our final night in the Tuscan capital.

On the streets of Lucca
At the site of the amphitheater with our guide

tuscan hills
Sunset over Tuscan Hills

So a day then full of culture, history and surprises. With a final morning left to enjoy Florence we were coming to the end of our Italian adventure. Tomorrow was all about gifts and last looks. Until then we can reflect on what had just been, and think about how nice it would be to spend lazy summer evenings drinking wine in one of Lucca's many squares! Just a thought but oh what a nice thought.

Once again thanks to everyone for their continued support, the response to these diaries has been phenomenal.  

26 March 2016

Florence bound

Towards the Tuscan Capital - Italian Diaries 3

We left a sunny but breezy Venice behind (why does the weather always seem to improve when you leave a place?) We were bound for Tuscany and its capital Florence. Venice had served us well. A city full of charm and hidden surprises. Will we return? Well I would certainly be happy to spend a day or two there again. So in my book that's a thumbs up. 

I had been looking forward to this leg of the journey. Having previously worked in the travel business selling train tickets across Europe (had all the glam jobs me!) The Venice to Florence route is a well trodden route and often cropped up. So finally I was to experience it for myself. Oh this journey that had been the bane of my early working life!  

Italian trains
The Frecciarossa ETR500
Fast Train to Florence
We took the FrecciaRossa service between the two cities. With a train reaching speeds of  300km/h and a journey of just over 2hrs, the Italian countryside was going to be a bit of a blur. Trust our luck that we were delayed and instead of seeing a blurred Italian countryside, we saw the grubby Venice platform! That said the delay wasn't to hamper our eventual pleasure of watching the Italian countryside wizz by in a flash. 

Top Tip 3: Be aware of your belongings at Venice station. There were a large number of what appeared to be "very helpful" people operating the platforms. Clearly not station staff. Perhaps I was being paranoid but precautions should always be taken.

As for the train, well comfortable seats certainly helped. And taking a walk along the train to the spacious and pleasant buffet car made for a welcome change of scenery. It's probably not a good idea to compare different countries transport systems, as they are all so different, but I've had the privilege of riding some of the worlds best. The Shinkansen (Japan),  TGV (France) and ICE trains (Germany) to name a few. Showing just a little of my geeky "travel" side here! I digress, I found the Italian service was certainly on a par with these more prestigious services and comes recommended. But isn't traveling by train the best way to see the world anyway? 

Venturing into the unknown
Ok, so we've been here for less than an hour and I can already tell that I'm going to like Florence. It has a pleasant, almost laid back feel. Oh and everybody looked so chic and fashionable. Something which I am certainly not! As we headed out I half expected boats to get in our way, having just come from the canals of Venice but no it was mainly mopeds! Today was again about venturing, getting to know this wonderful city before we attack it properly tomorrow morning. We headed straight for the tourist hot spots. Taking in the famous bridge (Ponte Vecchio) and the enjoying the imposing (Florence Cathedral.) Although we were to explore the cathedral and bell tower tomorrow. As well as seeking out our daily espresso fix. 

Ponte Vecchio
Along the Arno River
So much culture!
Our brief time here as already taught us that Florence is a city that takes great pride in its art and culture. It's statues and magnificent buildings perfectly emphasizing that point. You sense in the local people overwhelming pride in their city and its treasures. So what's not to like? Cobbled roads, opulent buildings on every street corner, wonderful cafes'. I could go on and on. 

Tomorrow we take in the sights in more detail before heading off to Pisa and Lucca. So we head for some shut eye, although that was to prove difficult with my noisy neighbours above my room dragging chairs around as if it was some kind of new sport! Oh well, sleep finally came, thankfully. Tomorrow was a full on "tourist day".

I hope you are enjoying these diaries as much as I am writing them? Thank you to all who have commented and your continued support. 


23 March 2016

Walking the streets of Venice

Getting Lost! - Italian Diaries Part 2

from the bell tower

The sound of bells welcomed us into the new day! Normally I wouldn't mind them, they are soothing and sweet in sound. Today however it felt too early for them and I wanted more sleep! Oh well there is Venice to explore and after a hearty breakfast it was time to become a tourist and really get to grips with this compact city. Welcome to Day 2 of our Italian adventure.

Explore, explore, explore
Our hotel was some distance from the heart of the city but having experienced the water bus it was right to head out on foot and explore the maze of streets and canals. All the guidebooks suggest the best way to experience Venice is to walk it, and that is what we intended to do. With a map to hand, we worked our way into the small streets, plotting our path towards the first point of interest; Rialto Market. Being with a group it resulted in a number of "shop" stops on route. And calls of "Head down this street". "Oh look lets go down this one". "Now how about this way?" "Haven't we already been down here?" "I just want to look in here quickly"- Probably all familiar terms to anyone who has walked these narrow alleyways. Isn't that the fun of it? And once you immerse yourself it really isn't that bad. There is so much to discover. 

Rialto Markets
Anyone like fresh fish? Or perhaps a juicy ripe strawberry? Well if you do then visiting these markets are a must do. Having walked, stopped at shops and stopped at more shops we finally made it to Rialto fish and vegetable market. The fish looked so fresh, the strawberries so red and ripe. Oh and very yummy they were too. After that brief stop it was then over the bridge and into the main central area. Our destination Piazza San Marco, Saint Mark's Basilica and the imposing Campanile. If there was one element of the Venice package that did annoy me it was the many, many tourist shops. All selling the same items that we buy and then soon discard. Want a masquerade mask? Some "tacky" goods, scarfs, etc etc. It was a little too much for me. The charm of Venice lies in the normal, the side streets, little bridges and the unexpected. 



Up the Bell Tower
Next to the cathedral (Basilica - flamboyant, opulent) on the corner of the square is the bell tower (Campanile). A chance to survey Venice in full. No stairs here, just a slow meandering lift that takes you to the top. It's fair to say the view is worth it, if a little cold from the breeze that was prevalent. The scene below is of tightly packed houses, with the Adriatic Sea a grey hue in the distance (well it was on the day we visited). But what a view, what a wonderful view. And there was hardly a queue; bonus!

Top Tip 2: Venice can be expensive (as can the rest of Italy) so visiting the local supermarket and picking up some fresh produce can be a great way to save pennies. And the food isn't half bad.

The rest of the day was spent eating, drinking coffee and exploring whatever parts we felt. There's a great free museum full of viola's and cello's thats worth a look. There is no denying that Venice is a beautiful city. A place that should be on your bucket list. Yes its very busy with tourists, it isn't the cleanest of cities and the number of tourist shops are a put off. That aside, this is a city that wants you to explore its tight pathways and canals. Discover a lovely cafe, and eat good food. Tomorrow we were to bid farewell, Florence was next on the agenda. Although our stay was short, it was certainly pleasant.

The author - proving he was there!
I hope you are enjoying these diary entries, please feel free to comment and I do hope you'll join me for the next stage of our mini tour as we head to Florence (Firenze).

21 March 2016


Outward bound - Italian Diaries Day 1

A 4am start is not really what you want when heading on your travels, but that we must due to the early flight. So with little or no sleep we headed to Gatwick, bound for our latest Italian adventure. Venice being the first stop on this mini five day tour. Firstly however we had to negotiate the chaos that is Gatwick Airport! What is it with airports and the stresses of travel? Check-in, queue for customs, unpack things, re-pack things, take clothes off because its hot, put them back on because its suddenly cold! The joys of air travel. 

Sleeping on a plane
I don't sleep on planes, do you? Today however was the exception, some shut eye was required and that is what I amazingly got. So much that I nearly missed breakfast! Although in truth it wasn't much, falling asleep again soon after. I awoke in time to capture some of the beauty of the Alps. The snow capped mountains jutting their heads above the clouds, can't really argue with the view that's for sure. And without too many bumps we landed safely at Marco Polo Airport, welcome to Venice.

Italian Alps

Casa Sant Andrea
Being on a budget its always hit and miss when it comes to hotels. We where fortunate as this budget hotel was surprisingly good. It's a converted Monastery, giving it a old feel but with a modern interior. Large wooden beams flank the rooms edges and stone floors give it that old feel. It's a simple hotel, with polite staff and close enough to the major waterway stops and the train station. Always a bonus. After settling in, checking the room, bouncing on the bed (well who doesn't when you arrive at a new hotel?) It was all about orientation. Getting to know our home for the next couple of days. 

Getting to know you
Top Tip 1: Want to get an idea of Venice without too much walking? Then use the Vaporetto water bus. Think of it being the subway system but on water. Yes it's a little on the expensive side (7 euros + for a 75 minute water taxi ticket. You can however buy daily or 48 hour tickets, which are better value. Best to decide if you're going to do lots of walking and then work on what's best for your needs.) It'll give you panoramic views and an idea of where some of the key attractions are, so defiantly worth doing at least once. On the other hand you could walk towards the main tourist areas. All depends on where you're staying of course. We chose the easy option on this occasion. 

Grand canal

We jumped off at the final stop on route 2; Piazza San Marco and explored the area surrounding it. A little bit of Italian pizza (they really do the best ones. No contest), an espresso and our first stroll around the tiny streets were on the agenda. To see Venice at its best, then its a must to just; get lost. More on that to come in Part 2. It all made for the perfect start to our stay. It was whilst strolling and getting lost that the early start finally caught up with us. 

So as the sun went down on a long but enjoyable day, we bade Venice goodnight. Happy in the knowledge that we had at least got our bearings. An early night though was called for. Tomorrow we would really get our teeth into Venice and its many treasures. 

I hope you have enjoyed the first part of our Italian diary? Over the next week we'll continue the adventure, giving tips and thoughts on the places we explored. Don't forget to leave a comment or some thoughts of your own. 


11 March 2016

travel doodles #3

Bird watching

The Sparrow
We're certainly into Spring mode, and what better way to enjoy this most beautiful of seasons than perhaps a bit of bird watching? A sure sign that Spring has arrived. We have a bird feeder in our garden and its so nice to occasionally just stare out the window and watch the birds go about their business. On the one hand its very therapeutic and on the other its a wonderful way to let your mind wonder and forget about the worries and troubles in our daily routines. 

Although the variety of birds to our feeder is not extensive, there's always a brief moment of excitement when something other than a Sparrow or Robin appears. Greenfinch? Blue tit? Spring is also the time when our overseas visitors return, so now is as good a time as any to do a bit of nature watching. It's cheap to do, relaxing and also a great way to pass those moments when you want to clear the mind. And you never know, if you really enjoy it there are plenty of opportunities to take it further. Local woodlands and nature reserve for instance. So why not welcome the birds into your space and enjoy nature going about its business, whilst you go about yours?

Happy bird watching everyone!  

8 March 2016

5 reasons to get out and about this march

Spring has arrived, just about! And with the Easter holiday looming it really is time to get out and about. Stretch those legs and wipe the winter blues away. Although we are already some way into March, where does the time go? There's still plenty coming up to enjoy. So in no particular order hopefully there is something for everyone in this months choices. 
The Colour of Spring
E is for Easter Egg - What better way to kick start the Easter period than a bit of an Easter Egg hunt? We often feature the National Trust in these posts and numerous properties have hunts to suit young and old. Click on the link for more details Easter events. Complete the trail and bag yourself an Easter egg, whilst also experiencing some of the UK's wonderful countryside and the early signs of Spring. Daffodils and snowdrops aplenty. Eggcellent! 

P is for St Patrick's Day - Known around the globe, St Patrick's Day its always worth checking out. There's bound to be an event in your local area related to this most celebrated of saints days. So why not join in the fun and raise a glass of Guinness or three to the Emerald Isles. 

F is for Fundays! - The middle of March is when many of the UK's major attractions open their doors after the winter hiatus. If you're a theme park fan then the fun begins. Thorpe Park open their doors from March 17th and Alton Towers on the 19th. Many other UK theme parks and attractions will be doing the same so you'll have plenty of days out to choose from.

TD is for Tichborne Dole -  In the village of Tichborne in Hampshire, England an 800 year old tradition remains in place to this very day. On the 25th March (Ladys Day) the local villagers are given a gallon of dole (flour) that has been blessed by the parish priest. It's origins date back to Sir Roger Tichborne and his wife Mabella. She had a crippling disease and wanted to donate something to the poor each year. If he or his future heirs didn't then the family would be cursed! Hence why the tradition still stands today. So why not seek out the village and watch this most ancient of traditions unfold. 

S is for Something Different! - March 13th is Ear Muff Day! Yes celebrate all that is wonderful about the ear muff. Why not head out for a bracing seafront walk; wearing your ear muffs. Or perhaps check out the daffodils in your local park; wearing your ear muffs. Now where did I put mine?

So there we go, a few bits and pieces for you to get your teeth into. Whether visiting these shores over the Easter Period or if you're already a resident here, counting the days till the clocks go back and the sun (when it shines) gently warm us up! Now is the time to start having some Spring time fun.

If you have any suggestions that please drop us a comment, would be great to hear from you. Until the next time...happy March! 


4 March 2016

kelly oliver part 2

Reaching Bedlam

Kelly Oliver - Bedlam 
March 6th marks the release of Kelly Oliver's latest album, Bedlam. In the second part of our interview with her, we discuss the making of the album and what lies ahead for this rising star of the young folk movement. 

Recording Bedlam
Recorded throughout 2015, Bedlam came reasonably soon after the first album and was very much a work in progress, with songs being written and recorded simultaneously. After listening to the album you can sense that its a leap forward in both songwriting, playing and production. For one, more producers were used, bringing their own sounds and ideas to the table. Lauren did however contribute, continuing their wonderful working relationship. I go on the ask the girls about the inspiration behind the album. Kelly responds promptly suggesting that each song is individual with no theme as such; a mix of personal experiences and traditional "folk" infused storytelling. Something different is the words she uses and its hard to disagree when listening to the record.

"What do you hope people will get out of this?" I ask. She liked that question and answers by suggesting she made a conscious effort to improve on the instruments she played, as well as the vocals. Also that the lyrics are not wasted, that every word counts. She discusses how people interpret her work, that sometimes its very different to her own understanding. Going on to say that she likes people making their own decisions on each songs meaning. 

Going Vinyl
Our conversation moves onto the music industry in general. Kelly and Lauren discuss the relevance of CD's in the modern world and the continued rise in the Vinyl market. Although a little coy about it there seems to be a suggestion that the current album will have a vinyl release. I can't help thinking how refreshing it is to hear two young musicians talking so enthusiastically about vinyl. It's what I grew up on (my first single was by Ultravox! a 10p bargain at a fete sale); "Dancing with tears in my eyes!"

On the Festival Road
So with Bedlam's release imminent we move on to what's next. Kelly is currently in the middle of a nationwide tour and during the summer a number of key festival gigs, including Bob Harris's (iconic UK radio DJ) Under the Apple Tree Roots Festival and some currently unannounced big festivals! Be sure to check Kelly's website for more details http://kellyoliver.co.uk. As she talks about touring, whether solo or with a band (an upcoming Convent gig is with a band). You get the sense that this is where she enjoys being the most, out there performing her work. Meeting and chatting with fellow musicians and fans. 

Relaxing? Not here
Being a travel writer I have to ask about free time and holidaying. It becomes apparent that both don't rest on their laurels. Their work is also their passion. Promoting gigs takes time, trailing through the task of working with social media is a continuous battle (I know what she means!) What of the future then? To be the next Joni Mitchell? Yes, please Kelly replies. She also talks about playing at other venues and abroad. Australia and Europe are mentioned. Hope you're read this Australia! Our conversation takes in everything from YouTube to the accessibility of being a musician. Both talk so gracefully about every subject that we could have carried on for hours, but our time has come to an end.

Lauren (left), Me and Kelly
Final Thoughts
I leave our interview feeling very alive and inspired. The hour or so spent with Kelly and Lauren highlights the young talent that is out there waiting to be discovered. And I'm left thinking that the UK folk scene is in very good hands, due to the enthusiasm and dedication of the likes of Kelly and Lauren. What an inspirational pair. 

Bedlam is released this weekend and if you'd like to know more details then please visit Kelly's website. I hope you have enjoyed our little look into Kelly's world? If so then please leave a comment. 

In the coming weeks I will be doing a feature on Lauren (one of the UK's few female producers), so please look out for that one. Until next time, carry on folking! 



© Sketches in Travel. All rights reserved.