31 December 2015

Italy Heaven highlights of 2015

My year began and ended with trips to Venice, my home from home, always so much better outside the peak tourist season. As usual I spent a lot of time in Venice. One of this year's most memorable experiences was walking along the sea walls protecting the southern lagoon from the sea.

In April I visited the low-key island of Ustica. Nights were cold but the days were warm and sunny, and I walked the entire circumference of the island on attractive flower-strewn footpaths.

In June I visited the lovely Aeolian islands. First stop was posh little Panarea, where I enjoyed the views and - on a very hot day - climbed to the island's summit.

 I caught the delivery boat to the volcano island Stromboli, where I ate a pizza at dusk while watching the volcano's eruptions.

The islands are great for delicious and affordable eating. I sampled an ice granita every day (essential for cooling down on hot days).

This year I've visited quite a few volcanoes. I walked around the crater of Vulcano on another blazingly hot day.

I returned to the islands in September for more island ascents - and a leisurely boat trip.

In October I visited Taormina with my parents and visited another volcano.

We visited the atmospheric village of Savoca and stayed in the excellent Borgo San Rocco run by the wonderful Vittorio, to whom all guests are personal friends.

There were lots of memorable moments in Rome in November, including a return to the wonderful palace of Nero and my favourite Roman meal, pasta with squash flowers at a trattoria called Da Carlone in Trastevere.

I made a video of the daily life and starling murmurations of Rome.

On a pre-Christmas trip to Venice I enjoyed the peace of the city and made a few videos to show some of the different facets of the city.

I haven't made my travel plans for 2016, but if you follow me on Twitter or visit the Italy Heaven website and this blog, you can catch up with my latest destinations, discoveries, meals, ice drinks and off-the-beaten-track experiences, as well as all the latest website updates and Italy recommendations.

26 December 2015

Maison Giulia apartments, Rome - my guest review

Do you fancy an independent stay right in the heart of Rome? I've stayed twice in a little studio flat in the historic centre of Rome which is managed by the hotel Maison Giulia. My most recent stay was last month, when I stayed for one night. A couple of years ago I spent a few nights in the same studio.

My night in November in a flat sleeping two people cost just €74 - very good value for Rome. There was also the option of an even cheaper, non-refundable tariff. This is a quiet time in Rome; generally the decent low-to-mid-range hotels were a little more expensive than this for the same week, while a few budget B&Bs were slightly cheaper.

Maison Giulia has several holiday apartments to let. Mine (for both stays) was described on the booking page as the 'Gonfalone studio flat'. It's in a building with several other apartments on Via Gonfalone, between the river Tiber and Via Giulia. Guests check in at the hotel, at the far end of Via Giulia, a long straight street lined with historic buildings. This is around a ten-minute walk from the apartment, over Rome's bumpy little cobblestones. Given the hassle of bouncing a suitcase along, I was pleased to find the hotel staff would ferry me between the hotel and Via Gonfalone. The short journey, in a golf buggy, was actually quite fun.

 Maison Giulia staff were friendly and helpful. This attitude carried over into the presentation of the apartment, where I found a folder filled with useful information such as the wi-fi password.

The flat is a reasonable-sized room with a couple of structural columns complicating the design. It's very nicely decorated and furnished: cool, white-painted, simple and sensibly-planned, with decent furniture from Ikea. Convenient design features include lots of lights, plugs by the bed and bedside tables. The bed is two singles which can be joined or separated (request this in advance). Other furniture includes a small table, three chairs and a TV.  The wardrobe space has limited height and is high up (guests have to use a pole provided to get clothes up and down), with shelves underneath. There's storage for small items and fair bit of space to put things, but no suitcase stand and no coat hooks.

The kitchenette is along one wall of the studio, quite close to the bed; this would be rather a small space for cooking and eating in, but I don't know how many guests would actually do that on anything more than an occasional basis; not with so many cheap restaurants nearby. Kitchen facilities include a kettle, toaster, hob, oven, fridge (noisy at times) and a freezer.

The bathroom is nice but small. Again there are no hooks and little surface space for toiletries (although there are empty shelves in a cupboard under the washbasin). The shower has a choice between an overhead rainfall head, partly blocked, and an adjustable head. The apartment has a full length mirror. Nice towels and bedding are supplied along with basic toiletries, and a hairdryer. There's air conditioning and heating.

I didn't use the kitchen facilities for anything more than storing food or making tea. There are lots of good, cheap restaurants, cafes and take-aways in the centro storico, so it seemed a shame to eat in. But if you want to cook for yourselves or make a lunch or picnic, there's a handy supermarket very nearby (this was pointed out by staff as I arrived). The morning fruit and vegetable market in Campo de' Fiori is a fun way to stock up on provisions. A proper local cafe around the corner will provide a simple Roman breakfast of coffee and a croissant to eat in or take away (90 cents).

A sign informs guests that there is no smoking allowed in the building.  I'd recommend that guests note the position of their flat in the building, and the street number. I came back on my first night and tried my key in a couple of wrong doors first;  having first arrived with a hotel porter, I hadn't noted the precise situation on my return I realised there weren't any obvious name signs or identifying features.

Considering it's in the centre of an Italian city, the apartment was pretty quiet at night. It was occasionally possible to hear guests in other apartments (although perhaps only because one woman was shrieking with high spirits).

Campo dei Fiori is a few minutes' walk away, along the attractive little Via dei Banchi Vecchi, a lane lined with interesting little shops and a few bars, somewhere between artisan and bohemian. There are advantages and disadvantages to the location. This part of Rome is problematic for public transport. You'll be relying on buses, which can be crowded and unreliable, and your feet. But if you want to experience the lovely and unique atmosphere of Rome's centro storico and you're happy to walk a lot, this is a wonderful location to stay in. It's romantic, pretty, full of medieval atmosphere and very convenient for restaurants and bars and strolling. If on the other hand you want to make trips out of town or have easy access to the metro system, you'd be better off looking around Stazione Termini/Monti, or Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps).

The easiest way to get to Maison Giulia from the airport is to catch the local train to Trastevere station. This isn't the direct airport service Leonardo Express, but a double-decker commuter train. A one-way ticket costs €8. Plan ahead and buy travel tickets or a travel card for Rome at the airport too. At Trastevere station, take tram number 8. The tram stop is outside the station forecourt/car park area, on the left in the middle of the multi-lane street. Get off at the first stop across the river, Via Arenula/Ministero Giustizia. From here you reach Via Giulia by walking a short way along the busy riverbank road and then branching right when you are level with Ponte Sisto. Via Giulia runs diagonally away from the river, and the hotel is just a short walk along the street, with a low-key entrance but a nameplate outside.
I love staying in this flat as I've always appreciated evenings pottering around the centro storico, and being surrounded by history. With an apartment all of your own, you can fantasise that you are living here, and seeing Rome as its luckiest residents would. Both times I've stayed in the flat, I've wished I could stay for longer - months longer. For a taste of Roman lifestyle, it can't be beaten. When I did actually live in Rome, of course it wasn't anywhere as romantic as this; I much prefer this idealised version of 'living in Rome'.

I would really recommend this apartment very highly for an independent stay in Rome. Other apartments on offer from Maison Giulia are larger, so would suit families or bigger parties.

> Book at the Maison Giulia apartments
> Where to stay in Rome

4 December 2015

Shopping on the Strada Nuova, Venice

The Strada Nuova (or Nova) is a name used to cover long chain of shopping streets running through Venice. The route runs from Venice's railway station towards the Rialto Bridge and St Mark's; it was driven through existing buildings and canals in the nineteenth century. Although sections of the way have different street names, Venetians tend to call the whole route the Strada Nuova. I used to live near the street and it's one of my least favourite places in Venice, partly because of the relentless hordes of tourists flooding along, generally day-trippers who are too tight-fisted to pay for a ferry ride down the Grand Canal,

But although it may be tourist hell for much of the year, the lane is also an important local shopping destination. Like elsewhere in Venice, useful local shops are steadily being replaced by tourist stores, but here there are still shops where you can buy bedding, old ladies' clothes, window blinds and all sorts of other everyday items. And the shops for tourists aren't all tacky chains and Chinese souvenirs. As I've been staying on the Strada Nuova this week, I've hunted out some of the more interesting boutiques. The businesses I've listed can all be found on the section of the lane between the Cannaregio canal and the Ca' d'Oro vaporetto stop. The first stretch is officially called the Rio Terrà San Leonardo. I've listed shops consecutively; note that the numbers in the address relate to the district of Cannaregio, not the street itself (Venice doesn't have street numbers).

Oreficeria alle Guglie (Cannaregio 326).
Right next to Ponte delle Guglie, the large bridge over the Cannaregio canal, on the railway station side, this jeweller's has a nice range of jewellery and gifts. I particularly like the Venetian cameos with scenes of the city and of the Lion of St Mark. It also stocks lovely pendants of Murano glass made with the millefiori technique.

Nerovenezia (Cannaregio 1591)
A cut above the many tourist glass shops on the street, Nerovenezia is an artisan boutique whose owner makes some striking and unusual glass jewellery, including some romantic pieces of embracing couples which would make a good Valentine's gift. Everything is handmade - and if you want to have a go yourself, you can also buy beads, ribbon and cord to make your own creation.

Nave de Oro (Cannaregio 1370)
This is a wine shop selling vino sfuso by the litre (locals bring their own plastic bottles to be filled). A cheap way to buy local wine.

Fanny (Cannaregio 1647)
With a couple of branches in Venice, Fanny is a good place to buy quality leather gloves, in many colours and styles. I've been buying my gloves from them for years.

Rizzo (Cannaregio 1355)
Rizzo is a Venetian institution; a tardis-like shop which is full of treats for foodies: foccacia, rolls, pastries and sweets, fresh pasta ready for cooking, cheeses and all sorts of packaged speciality biscuits, jams and sauces to take home in your suitcase.

Ca Macana Atelier (1374)
A Venetian mask shop selling authentic, good-quality papier mâché creations for Carnival or just for fun.

Giunti al Punto (Cannaregio 2001)
Useful bookshop which sells books in English as well as Italian, including guides to Venice.

Vladi Shoes (Cannaregio 2340)
An artisan business selling colourful  and stylish shoes, specialising in bold and slightly quirky designs. They're not cripplingly expensive either.

Farmacia Santa Fosca: The Merchant of Venice (Cannaregio 2233
This historic pharmacy is fascinating to visit; the right-hand part of the business now houses The Merchant of Venice perfumes and it's one of the most interesting shop interiors in Venice. All the traditional historic features have been restored to their 18th-century appearance: carved wooden shelves housing blue and white pots of medicine and herbs. There's another interior like this preserved in the museum at Ca' Rezzonico; you can appreciate this one for free and in its original context. The perfumeria is also a good tourist destination in itself. With eau de toilette from €45, you can choose from a wide range of scents inspired by Venice's historic trade routes.

Less exciting than some of these other shops is the Conad supermarket, by a bridge at Cannaregio 3660 (near San Felice). It's a crowded and useful store where you can stock up on food for your apartment, a picnic, or bits and pieces to take home.

If you're ready for refreshments after all the shopping, you can try good wines and local food platters at La Cantina (Cannaregio 3689, Campo San Felice). Alternatively, if you want colder refreshment, pay a visit to Grom (Cannaregio 3844), a quality Italian ice cream chain (their granita is quite good, too).

You can read more about Venice, including the details of other interesting shops and boutiques, in my guidebook and on the Venice section of Italy Heaven.