La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

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2017: The Year of Cautious Optimism

Despite the many terrible world events that happened in it (Brussels, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Syria, Turkey, Brexit, Trump, Berlin to name but a few), 2016 was a great year for me personally. I married the love of my life after five years together, had the most joy-and-love-filled celebration with friends and family followed by a two week trip around my favourite places in northern Italy. I also had not one, not two, but THREE fantastic hen celebrations in London and Las Vegas (!), a relaxing break with friends in the beautiful Belgian Ardennes and an amazing holiday to Vietnam (thanks to Tom and Lily for having their wedding there!), plus numerous other special moments shared with special people. And for all of this I feel incredibly thankful.

The instability in the world has proved our future is far from certain, and that every day is a blessing and not a guarantee. I am therefore approaching 2017 with an attitude of cautious optimism. From a personal perspective there is much to look forward to, and potentially big changes afoot, not least my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology starting in February.

From a wider world perspective, I do believe that we can, to some extent at least, be the change we want to see in the world. Even if it’s only on a micro rather than a macro level, when individuals come together to realise a common goal – whether it be helping other humans, animals and/or the environment – something magical happens. If we never look outside of ourselves and our own immediate concerns we not only lose perspective but we also fail to make a positive impact on the world around us. Whenever my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil I hope it can at least be said I made some progress on that front.

So here we stand on the threshold of a new year. The future may be uncertain, but it is also what we make it. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make 2017 the best year yet. Happy New Year.

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Nostalgia Rules

Tonight, over dinner with my best friend, we took a stroll down memory lane and revisited our memories of the family holiday we spent in Corsica when we were 15 (dare I even speak aloud that was not too shy of 20 years ago now?!) On a recent visit to her family home she found a wallet of photos from the holiday, and we spent a good couple of hours poring over them and recalling all the funny moments we had shared and the people we had come across during our time on the island.

Whilst the nostalgia trip was in itself a wonderful and long overdue experience, what interested me most was that we were able to remember things that had long since been consigned to the depths of our memories – so much so we thought they had been lost forever, when, in actual fact, they had spent all these years gathering dust in boxes at the far recesses of our minds.

The prompted recollection of names (like Ingrim, the lifeguard who rescued us three times from sea when our newfound windsurfing skills failed to render us proficient enough to turn around) and occasions (like the time we found a litter of kittens in our luggage on a previous childhood holiday to Italy, or the time we blagged our way into a Corsican nightclub foam party) has triggered so many other, related memories in my mind (did I really wear underwear from Knickerbox as outerwear?!), which has sprung open like Pandora’s Box.

It’s comforting to know nothing in life is lost, but rather pushed aside by other, newer and more relevant memories. And that all it takes to recall what’s been forgotten – and remember what it was like to be in those long forgotten moments – is some visual prompts and an animated conversation with a good friend.

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Ciao for now

Yesterday, our last day in Italy, we left the city of Florence and headed out into the countryside for a night of four star luxury at the Hotel Mulino di Firenze. 

A five kilometre drive out of the centre, the hotel felt just far enough away from the hustle and bustle of city life to allow us to completely unwind, yet also near enough to be convenient for today’s departure (sob) to the airport for our flight back to London.
 
The Mulino couldn’t be much better situated, with many of its 35 bedrooms – ours included, thanks to an upgrade due to a mix up with our hotel shuttle booking – directly overlooking the beautiful River Arno. The hotel is built around a restored water mill, with the mill itself integrated into the glorious swimming pool. 
 
We spent the afternoon lazing by the pool, and in the evening played cards on the upstairs veranda looking out over the traditional Tuscan landscape, before eating dinner on the hotel restaurant’s frankly stunning terrace, where we had an unrestricted view of one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.
 
When the time came to leave this morning my heart felt heavy; after an eight year absence Italy had worked its magic on me and seeped back into the very core of my existence. But instead of being sad to be back I’m determined to remember every sight, sound and smell I’ve encountered in the last week, and to make sure next time I don’t leave it so long to return to the country that I love so much.

Firenze, Ti amo

Yesterday began in somewhat of a rush, after a miscommunication regarding the start time of our visit to the Medici tombs (which I can’t deny may have had something to do with the slightly excessive alcohol consumption the previous night). Nonetheless, after the initial panic things were swiftly back on track, and after a salad lunch on the terrace and an afternoon rest and market browse (where some scumbag vendor tried to fleece us out of 15 Euros-not so fast sunshine) we were ready to enjoy our final evening in central Florence.

 
A tip for anyone visiting Florence is to pre-book tickets for the famous Uffizi art gallery one or even two days before you plan to visit, as this will mean avoiding the huge queues on the day. The gallery is well worth a look around, being full of treasures such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It’s well organised, air conditioned and has some of the best vantage points along its numerous corridors and terraces to enjoy unrestricted views of the Arno river, Duomo and town hall.
 
After two hours spent wandering around the Uffizi-the only mild irritation being the hordes of tourists and tour guides passing through the halls-we went back to the restaurant where we’d dined on our first night for one last plate of mixed grilled meats, which we followed up with one last gelato at Vivoli  ice cream parlour (when we walked past it earlier in the day the queue was right down the street, but by 10pm it was virtually empty) – if you ever get a chance to sample its delights the coconut ice cream comes highly recommended.
 
As we strolled back past the hugely impressive Pizza del Duomo I took one last look around at the city I first fell in love with as a six year old, and it felt as magical in that moment as it felt all those years ago.

Lazy days

I can’t believe it’s Thursday already-it’s true what they say about time passing quickly when you’re having fun. Holidays are such an important opportunity to unwind and recuperate from the stressors of “real” life. They give the body and mind a much needed break and a chance to more fully live in and appreciate the present moment. 

 
Holidays are also often a time when we throw caution to the wind and overindulge ourselves, and nowhere is that easier to do than Italy, where there’s gelato, wine and pizza at virtually every turn.
 
Yesterday we had a lazy morning before visiting one of my favourite places in Florence-the covered market. Under its vast roof lie a multitude of delicious foodstuffs. But what I love even more than the food are the cheerful vendors. It always helps to bring my Italian flooding back when I attempt to engage in pigeon Italian conversation with them, selecting cured meats and cheeses. 
 
After buying ingredients for dinner we walked over the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge to Santo Spirito square, where my favourite restaurant in all of Florence is located-Il Borgo Antico. After dreaming of their legendary white pizza for 8 years I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint, and afterwards we took a traditional Italian gelato to accompany a post-lunch laze in the stunning Boboli Gardens in the grounds of the Pitti Palace.
 
In the evening we prepared a four course feast and dined on the roof of our gorgeous apartment, which is so centrally located the Duomo is virtually within touching distance. There’s something magical about being located so high up above this bustling city, being able to look out across the tops of the buildings and have a bird’s eye view. Being back here after so many years is more than just a pleasure-it’s a thrill.

Andiamo il Palio!

I remember the first time I went to the famous Palio horse race in Siena in Italy. I must have been about six years old, and was on holiday with my mum, my stepdad and my best friend and her family. Siena itself is a lovely place to behold, but when this race comes to town – as it does twice every year, once in July and once in August – it’s something else. Thousands of people line the streets, many waving flags in support of their horse –each of which represents a parish of Siena. The supporters walk through the city towards the central square (in reality more of a concave ‘shell’), filling it up to capacity before the race begins – which it does amidst much pomp and ceremony.

The race is over in seconds – it really is a blink and you’ll miss it affair – but whilst it’s a fantastic spectacle the thing that’s always captivated me has not been the race itself but the flurry of activity afterwards. For if you look up at the balconies – which pre-race are lined with mafia-types in suits and dark glasses – you’ll see them suddenly empty, as they go in search of the jockeys that have failed to bring their money in. Apparently some years the jockeys have been pulled off their horses and even killed (so the legend goes) after losing the race, which is why you’d be hard pressed to find any of the losers in the vicinity once the final whistle is blown.

It’s been a few years since my last trip to Siena, so I’m more than a little excited about attending this year’s first Palio on Tuesday. Dark glasses at the ready…