18 December 2006

Mirror brings winter sun

We love this story from the BBC about the determination of a little village in Italy to capture some winter sunshine: Italy village gets 'sun mirror' . Through the cunning placement of a large mirror on the hillside, Viganella can now direct the sun's rays into the town square. Sunshine and an outdoors social life are crucial to the Italian way of life, although one would have thought the villagers would be used to their winter gloom by now. Still, 'Progetto Specchio' (Project Mirror) will doubtless brighten Viganella's winters as well as giving the village some international publicity. The village is in the north of Piemonte, in the shadows of the Alps, and the nearest tourist town is Verbania, on Lake Maggiore.

15 December 2006

Alagna versus La Scala

There's a lovely new chapter in the saga of the Tenor and the Opera House. First he walked out on the Scala during the second performance of their new high-profile Aida. Roberto Alagna was in a huff after some boos from the audience. Then his employers - understandably, one might think - accused him of breach of contract.
Alagna retaliated by threatening to sue them, claiming they hadn't protected him suitably. Now he has turned up outside the theatre to sing a moving farewell aria.
> Simon Jenkins in the Guardian: Get rid of audiences
> Neil Fisher in the Times: Relax, Roberto
> The original incident, which made a hero of Alagna's jeans-clad understudy, Antonello Palombi:

13 December 2006

Florence Christmas Market

Until the 17th December Piazza Santa Croce in Florence is taken over by an annual Christmas Market, the Mercato di Natale di Heidelberg. This German market is colourful and bright and a great place to visit in the early evening when the Christmas lights are on. Visitors can sip hot mulled wine while gazing up at the facade of Santa Croce, feast on beer and sausages, or browse for unusual Christmas presents, from glove puppets to wooden angel chimes. There is even a revolving merry-go-round bar for drinkers who want to watch the world spin by.
> Mercato di Natale (Italian-language Florence blog)

5 December 2006

Rome tourist card

If you're planning a long weekend in Rome it might be worth considering the tourist board's Roma Pass. This costs €18 for 3 days, and includes public transport, free entry to 2 museums, and a range of discounts. A standard 3-day travel card costs €11, so by comparing ticket prices of your chosen museums you can work out whether the Roma Pass will represent a worthwhile saving for you.
> Roma Pass
> Rome tourist guide

13 November 2006

Bracciano hits the headlines in Cruise wedding rumours

Over the last few days news reports have been buzzing with rumours with Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes are about to get married in Castello Odescalchi, a castle overlooking Lake Bracciano, north of Rome. By coincidence, the location is featured in Italy Heaven's latest report: Lazio tourist information: Bracciano and the Castello Odescalchi . Now may not be the time to visit Bracciano (unless you are a celebrity stalker or like crowds), but generally this quiet little place makes an interesting destination for a day out from Rome, or a side-trip from Viterbo.

We have no idea if the castle is really the location for this much-hyped union (it hardly seems one likely to be approved by the Catholic Church). It would certainly make an appealing venue, however. Today's Repubblica claims that Cruise and family are already in Rome, installed in the Hotel Hassler at the top of the Spanish Steps, and that the wedding will take place on Thursday at Bracciano.
> Cruise a Roma per le nozze (Repubblica)
> Rumors narrowing on Lake Bracciano for Cruise-Holmes Italian wedding (IHT, Nov 10th)

30 October 2006

An authentic Rome experience

Yesterday's Sunday Times features an article entitled The Real Rome, in which "Stanley Stewart picks 20 ingredients for a more authentic weekend in the Eternal City". His list of recommended sights avoids the obvious attractions and we'd concur with most of them as being good things to do. His list is still a tourist list, of course. After reading the article, we put our heads together to come up with our ideas for an 'authentic' weekend in Rome. Forget the tourist stuff: if you want to experience the Rome of modern-day Romans, here are our suggestions:

1. Watch the world go by
Sit at an outdoors cafe table and watch the evening passeggiata as Romans of all ages parade along the lanes of their neighbourhood or of the city centre, greeting acquaintances, appraising and being appraised. Good central spots are Trastevere and the Centro Storico (try the lanes between Campo de' Fiori and Piazza Navona).

2. Eat alla Romana
Enjoy a real Roman meal at a humble, family-run trattoria where the proprietor treats the diners like friends (they probably eat there every night, after all) and the written menu is usually overlooked - instead eat your host's recommendations and tuck into a generous pasta dish incorporating fresh local ingredients.
> Restaurants in Rome

3. Go out for a pizza
The next day, go for the pizza option: a proper Roman pizza preceded by bruschetta and accompanied only by a bottle of beer or glass of water. If possible, infiltrate a group of young Romans: 'going out for a pizza' usually involves a large convivial group of chums and a packed pizzeria in some unlikely location outside the city centre, in a world of cheap, superb food usually hidden from the tourist.

4. Coffee at Sant'Eustachio
It may be listed in every newspaper article and guidebook, but the Caffè Sant'Eustachio really is a local institution. Get your morning coffee here - but don't try to ask for an American or English-style brew. Acquire a taste for real, strong Italian coffee and you may begin to understand why they find other varieties barbaric.

5. Cross the road
Step boldly out onto a road-crossing, right into the path of speeding cars and taxis. As they jerk to a magical halt, stroll past with your nose held high and count yourself a real Roman. (Note: follow this advice at your own risk).

6. Battle bureaucracy
Attempt a form-filling transaction at a bank or police station (some post offices are much improved... but just try asking for stamps). Don't worry if you have to give up - that's all part of the experience.

7. Window-shopping
Window-shopping is a favourite pastime throughout the year. Stroll along a shopping street at snail-pace, pausing to ponder any goods that take your fancy. Shops often have more goods in their windows than on the shelves inside, and window-shopping is a ritual enjoyed by both men and women. This is why Romans wear such big thermal coats during their relatively mild winters - they spend so much of their evening loitering outside shops that they need to wrap up warm. There's plenty to look at on Via del Corso but for a tourist-free Roman experience head to the Via Appia Nuova around Re di Roma metro between 6 and 8pm. There is also a popular gelateria by the roundabout where you can carry out suggestion 8:

8. Eat an ice-cream
But in the Roman way - in the early evening, not the midday heat. For a city-centre stroll try the small gelateria halfway down Via di Tor Millina, or the famous San Crispino. Or for a serious ice-cream experience, the impressively-named Palazzo del Freddo. (Incidentally, who would have thought, when we set up Italy Heaven, that even gelaterie would one day have their own functional websites?)

9. Show Roman toughness
Hold your place in the non-queue of a take-away pizza place or gelateria. While no formal queueing takes place, you'll need to know who is before you and who behind, and insist when it is your turn (or even before, if you are really tough). Watch out for elderly ladies: they are the worst at barging in.

10. Ignore the sights.
You can permit yourself the odd satisfied glance, but if you want to feel like a local you should use the tourist sights as mere landmarks on your routes across town. Take a short-cut across Piazza Navona without pausing by any of the fountains; cut right through the Forum and past the Colosseum on your way to somewhere else, striding past the gawping tourists (ok, Romans don't generally use the Forum as a thoroughfare, but it is fun).

11. Roman high-life
Mingle with Rome's glitterati at the Teatro dell'Opera. The operas and ballets can be very fine, but also fascinating is the interval, when the bar fills with elegant society creatures posing in their finery.

12. Go to a football match
There is no better way to witness the soul of Italian society.
> Football in Rome

13. Night life
The young and intrepid should try out Rome's night time pursuits: head to Testaccio or San Lorenzo and stand around outside ramshackle, throbbing venues. Sip some beer if you want; bring your own drinks if you want. Actually entering a bar or nightclub is optional; many participants seem never to get around to this. Mind you, it is hard when eighteen friends, all arriving separately, have to meet up and discuss where to go next. For a tamer version, try Trastevere. For a more tourist-oriented meat-market head to Campo de' Fiori.

14. Go to the beach
In the summer all of Rome heads to the local, rather unappetising seaside (further south, Sperlonga is much nicer). In the daytime you sunbathe in a paying beach establishment, and in the evening you party.

15. Lunch out-of-town
Visit Frascati or one of the other Castelli Romani towns for a long lunch and cheap local wine.

That's all we can think of for now. Follow a few of these ideas and you'll begin to feel part of this chaotic city - or certainly understand it better. We were tempted to suggest that you witness rush-hour traffic (when policemen have to enforce traffic lights) or the packed morning Metro, but we're not quite that cruel. And other suggestions to make you feel Roman (for example, never ever take public transport or even learn how it works) might merely depress the unfortunate tourist.

Good luck - or in bocca al lupo, as the Romans say.

26 October 2006

Budget ski breaks - Dolomites bus service

Enterprising budget coach operators Terravision have started new Italian airport services for the ski season. The routes are worth investigating if you're planning a cheap winter trip to the Dolomites via budget airports. Keen walkers will hope that the bus services, which are due to operate December - April, may later be extended to the summer for the hiking season. Online prices are €12 one-way and €22 return.

A new weekend transfer service connects Milan Bergamo Airport, Brescia Airport, Bolzano, Ortisei, St Cristina and Selva in the Val Gardena. There is currently one service on Fridays, and three on Saturdays and Sundays.

A second route runs from Venice Treviso Airport to Cortina d'Ampezzo and Dobbiaco. One bus runs on Fridays, and two on Saturdays and Sundays.

> Skiing in the Dolomites
> Terravision timetables and bus tickets

23 October 2006

Rome Metro crash & transport safety in general

I was in Rome last week, when a collision on Metro Linea A killed one, injured two hundred and shocked the city. In the immediate aftermath it emerged that it is common practice for underground trains to pass through red lights during the rush hour - provided that they obtain verbal permission from the control room and don't exceed 15km/ph. In this case one of the new - supposedly safer - trains continued right into the back of another, which was stationary at the Vittorio Emanuele stop.

Rome's reaction was typically Roman: immediately the city was overwhelmed with grief - an end to festivities at the Film Festival; a city-wide day of mourning. At the same time special TV shows offered countless talking heads recounting the crash and denouncing safety standards.

Outrage was understandably the order of the day. Few can have been unaware of the risky procedures used underground. A couple of years ago, commuting on that same stretch of track, I became aware of my train hesitating, then passing through a red light as we approached a station. I knew there was a train immediately ahead. My fears were not realised, but from then on I avoided the end carriages.

Sadly - and not just in Italy - it is easy to be wise after the event. Trains have obviously been passing through red lights for years, and questions are only raised after an accident has happened. I reflected on this a couple of days after the crash, as I took a public coach service from Rome to Ciampino Airport. While navigating hellish rush-hour traffic on the Via Appia Nuova, one of Rome's main thoroughfares, the bus driver picked up his mobile phone and proceeded to make a phone call, while driving with one hand. Imagine the outrage that would follow an accident occasioned by such irresponsibility. But of course, until such an accident happens, it's unlikely anyone will care.

13 October 2006

Rome Film Festival 2006

Rome has launched its first International Film Festival, opened by Nicole Kidman. In previous years there have been various small festivals and seasons (showing films from the Venice film festival, for example). Now the city has set itself up in competition to other European film festivals with a large-scale event lasting from today until the 21st October. As well as film showings and premieres, there will be various outdoors events and exhibitions, including concerts in Piazza Augusto Imperatore and a big screen in Piazza del Popolo.
> Rome International Film Festival

11 October 2006

Italian MPs on drugs

This story about Italian MPs being secretly drugs-tested (while having their foreheads 'mopped for sweat') doesn't really require much additional comment:
> Italy MPs 'caught in drugs sting' (BBC)
The TV show concerned, Le Iene, is a curious programme which combines irritating pranks, showgirl-presenters cavorting and political satire. It can be found on a channel belonging to Berlusconi - hence the showgirl element and hence also, perhaps, the selection of MPs 'exposed' by this sting.

3 October 2006

Florence - drowned bronze statue on show

A rare surviving ancient bronze statue has gone on show in Florence. Fished out of the sea off Croatia, where he had lain for around two thousand years, the bronze athlete, now known as the Croatian Apoxyomenos, has spent seven years in conservation laboratories. Thought to be a 1st century BC Roman copy of an earlier Greek original, the statue will be on display in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi from 1st October 2006 to 30th January 2007.
> Visiting the exhibition
> Article from Minerva Magazine

30 September 2006

Stay in a hotel and catch a cold

Frequent travellers like ourselves will be depressed by this news article in the Guardian: Where the cold virus is an uninvited guest. According to the research quoted "people with colds can spread the virus to almost everything they touch, even if they stay for just one night".

Of course, it's pretty obvious that travelling exposes you to many new germs. Not to mention insect bites, food prepared in unknown circumstances, sunburn, chilly hotels in winter, high stress levels and countless other hazards. But still we do it. Hopefully the excitement and pleasure of holidaymaking will strengthen your immune system. Wrap up warm in winter (even in Italy) and beware of contaminated doorknobs.

You won't be too popular in hypochondriac Italy if you have the sneezes or a streaming nose. One of our contributors turned up to work in Italy proud of having made the effort despite a slight cold (normal and praiseworthy in workaholic Britain). Every Italian colleague spun away as fast as their swivel-chair castors would allow them, and ordered the only-slightly-invalid home. This is, after all, a country where every household has a thermometer, blood pressure monitor and a cupboard full of prescription medications.

We used to laugh at the ludicrous fear Romans had of draughts and the cold: never leave the house with wet hair! close every window on a train! always wear a scarf around your chin from October until spring! (you can go for six months without seeing a Roman neck). Only then we returned to England for winter, and saw girls out on a snowy night with bare mini-skirted legs turning blue, and minus coats, and we wondered if the Italians were really so mad. And it does have to be admitted that their life expectancy is traditionally better and they stay healthy for longer (WHO statistics for Italy and the UK).

17 August 2006

Viva Italia Show, London Olympia

Another Italian-themed show is taking place in London this autumn, at Olympia. The Viva Italia Show runs from 22-24 September 2006. Organised in conjunction with the Italian Chamber of Commerce for the UK, the fair is a chance for Italian firms and organisations - and UK ones with an Italian theme - to promote and peddle their wares. The brochure promises Italian entertainment, cooking, tourist stands and Italian products to sample and buy. And probably lots of people trying to sell you property in Italy. For more info visit the Viva Italia Show website. Maybe we'll see you there.

7 August 2006

Algae scare empties beaches

Stretches of Italy's coast near Rome and along the Italian Riviera near Genoa have been closed to bathers in the last couple of weeks after an invasion of toxic algae. Traces of poisonous seaweed have also been found in the sea off Palermo, in Sicily.

The closure of Rome' s beaches must have been a blow to local businesses and sunbathing Romans, although the area which was closed last week, between Nettuno and Ladispoli, is not a stretch we'd recommend to tourists. The beaches nearest to Rome are not terribly pleasant at the best of times: dirty, crowded and lined with ugly and expensive bathing establishments. Far nicer beaches can be enjoyed to the north in Tuscany and further to the south - such as our favourite, Sperlonga.

If you're planning on a trip to the areas affected, we'd recommend you ask your hotel for the lastest information. And be aware that some of the problems cited in the articles below - expensive beaches, jellyfish stings - are perennial.

> The Times: Poison algae and jellyfish drive bathers from the beaches
> The Guardian: Swimming ban hits Italian beaches as toxic algae bloom
> Ansa.it: Toxic seaweed appears in Sicily

11 July 2006

An Italy travel nightmare

On the one hand it's reassuring to read about other travellers' holiday nightmares ... but if you're a pessimist or a nervous traveller they only add to your fears.

Read a funny article in the Times by Giles Coren, whose hire-car problems marooned him in the staggeringly expensive Hotel Splendido in Portofino (no, we've never heard of a meal that expensive in Italy either... although it could have been the cocktails which pushed the price up).
>Hotel Splendido: "Two bowls of pasta, a pizza and a bottle of the house white for a hundred and fifty quid!"
> More about posh Portofino

9 July 2006

JOY FOR ITALY: World Cup victory at last

After years of heartbreak Italy have finally won the World Cup! For once, a penalty shootout has gone Italy's way. It may not have been the most fulfilling or artistic way to win, but Italy have earned these celebrations. Fans of Italian football can now spend a few hours rejoicing before the home scandal takes over the headlines tomorrow. Congratulations to the whole squad for some superb perfomances throughout this tournament.
> BBC World Cup final match report
As the Italian anthem echoes around the stadium in Berlin, we're all off to celebrate.

23 June 2006

Sicily underwater volcano

Underwater volcano found by Italy (BBC News)

As if Sicily didn't already face enough natural risks!

One of Europe's largest volcanoes is also an underwater volcano off the coast of Italy: Mount Marsili.
- Italian volcanoes

22 June 2006

Italian football

As Italy take to the pitch in their crucial Group E World Cup match, Italy is holding its breath for another reason. Later today the nation will learn the next installment of the football corruption scandal which has gripped the country for the last month. Centred around Italy's most successful club, Juventus, this investigation could see top players and clubs penalised for match-fixing, referee-planting, illegal betting and who knows what else.

Our sibling websites, Football in Italy and Football in Rome, have long maintained that something was amiss in the world of Serie A. Indeed, almost any Italian would have told you their suspicions of Juventus (typical chant from opposition fans: 'Ladri, ladri' - thieves, thieves). But naive English friends laughed at this 'paranoia'. Now we know it was probably all true. And only the tip of the iceberg. We've seen too many suspect goals and refereeing errors with our own eyes to be surprised, whatever emerges. We're just keeping our fingers crossed for Italy Heaven's favourite team.

A good BBC resume of the scandal so far: Shamed Italian clubs to be named

UPDATE: Now we know: Serie A quartet will stand trial . A genuinely thorough investigation could - if any of the allegations are true - bring down the entire structure of Italian football. And create extra insoluble problems - if the matches were fixed, shouldn't we all be entitled to refunds of our season ticket prices, of merchandise, of television fees and so on? An impossible situation. And the tentacles doubtless spread into other areas of Italian sport, business and politics. We suspect that, as in other corruption cases, a discreet line will be drawn under the matter after a handful of scapegoats have been penalised. We only wish our club wasn't set to be one of the scapegoats.

8 June 2006

Italy on the BBC

Earlier this year, on a bus in Cornwall, I was chatting with a much older lady. We talked about Venice, and she praised the BBC's recent series 'It was presented by – what was his name?' 'Francesco da Mosto' I prompted. 'Ooh, yes. He was very – '(she broke off, blushed and giggled girlishly) '- he knew it though!'

After the great popular success of their 'Venice by a Venetian' concept series, the BBC has extended the deal to include all of Italy (rather ironically, since da Mosto spent the first series emphasising that he was a Venetian rather than an Italian. ) It should be an entertaining and colourful look at Italy for UK viewers.

Francesco's Italy - BBC2 Sun 11 Jun, 9:00 pm

31 May 2006

Bronze Age Skeleton in Roman Forum

There's an interesting article on the BBC about a 3000-year-old skeleton found on the site of the Roman Forum:

Rome skeleton find pre-dates city

29 May 2006

Drunkenness in Italy

Sad to see that the tide of drunkenness is sweeping through Italy.

La dolce vita loses its fizz as spritzer leaves the young flat out in the piazzas

Living in Italy revolutionised our views of heavy drinking - our northern cultures are so used to bad behaviour and loss of control that it came as a shock to realise that in Italy this is seen as revolting, undignified and unacceptable.

We dreaded the evenings in the Centro Storico when our shouting, staggering countrymen (and women) would embarrass us with their boorishness. And we laughed at the UK government's idea that 'Mediterranean drinking habits' might civilise the Brits. In Rome these drunken tourists cause so much trouble that the city actually had to introduce licensing hours to cut down on drinking.

Now, despite general cultural disapproval, some young Italians are embracing northern-style inebriation. Rather than getting a tiny bit light-headed on their local wine, they drink beer in 'Irish pubs'. And now even the Veneto favourite, the spritz, is being blamed for "broken glass and puddles of vomit" on the streets of Padua.

We only hope that the Times article and the Paduan ban are an exaggerated response. It would be tragic to see an enforced end to the civilised pleasure of sitting outdoors in a piazza, sipping wine in moderation and enjoying the traditional Italian nightlife. Especially if it is our fellow tourists who've led to this state of affairs.

- Travelling Blonde on a night out in Venice earlier this year
- The Travelling Blonde is also writing up her more recent Venetian experiences in a new travel journal

5 May 2006

Cortona: Tuscan Sun Festival

If you're in Tuscany in August, consider checking out the Tuscan Sun Festival. Taking place in the picturesque town of Cortona, the festival is in its fourth year and includes classical concerts, lectures and wine-tastings. Highlights include Antonio Pappano with the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

23 April 2006

Rome: Ara Pacis re-opens

After seven years closed to the public, one of Rome's most important ancient monuments re-opened on Friday (Rome' s official birthday). The Ara Pacis, Augustus's altar of peace, is now housed within a controversial new museum development. We're just glad the site is open again - it's the altar itself that's really important, not the setting. It's frustrating that Rome' s monuments vanish periodically under sheeting and scaffolding, often disappearing for years at a time. The Domus Aurea, Nero's golden house, has closed once more, but at least we can now visit the Ara Pacis.

Opening times are Tuesday - Sunday 9am-7pm and the museum costs €6.50 (free to EU under-18s and over-65s). The location is on Lungotevere al Augusta (Metro Flaminio), between the Tiber and the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Official Ara Pacis Museum website (in Italian).

13 April 2006

Berlusconi cries "Fraud!"; Mafia boss arrested

The elections are over in Italy but that hasn't stopped the insults and accusations. After a most unedifying campaign it looks as though Berlusconi will go, but he isn't planning to leave quietly. And as the richest man in the country, and with control of much of Italy's media, he certainly isn't going to disappear. He's been accused, charged and thrown out before but still bounced back.

From an outsider's perspective, Italy's politics are murky at best. Living in the country you get very little sense of a direct chain of command. Central government is made up of bickering coalitions (sometimes resorting to fisticuffs in parliament) and it isn't always easy to see its effect on everyday life. Authorities are manifold and usually suspect. With constant allegations of corruption and intimidation at every level, right down to local village councils, many Italians will just roll their eyes and give that shrug when you ask who controls their lives and their country. Maybe they're making dark suggestions, or maybe they're just as confused as everyone else.

The Times, meanwhile, suggests that another Italian news story may not be unconnected to the election results - see page 2 of their story How Godfather was betrayed by his need for clean pants . As the Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano is finally arrested, we're left, as usual, to reflect on the fact that these rare arrests generally take place in or close to the fugitive's own family home; that during their decades 'on the run' they seem to spend most of their time in their own village, with their families. Read Peter Robb's excellent Midnight in Sicily for great coverage of both the island, its crime and its relation to Italian politics.

4 April 2006

Gardens of Ninfa on TV

Gardens of Ninfa
Readers in the UK may be interested in watching The Curious House Guest at 8pm on Thursday 6th April. The BBC 2 programme is to feature the fantastic and hard-to-visit Gardens of Ninfa in Lazio, south of Rome. Usually the deferential presenter explores British country houses, but this week he'll be visiting these Italian gardens, and exploring the British influences which helped form them.

29 March 2006

Venice in Winter

Wrap up warm, especially on the water! But don't forget your sunglasses.

Drinks we enjoyed: hot chocolate in Campo S. Stefano; rose tea at Caffè Florian; Bellinis at Harry's Bar; spritz in Campo S. Margherita; proper English tea as provided by our hotel upon request; vin brulé by the Rialto; Prosecco anywhere really... though we especially liked the place where they had sparkling wine on tap. Maybe sometimes it was the experience rather than the quality of the drink which made the impact...

For a couple more garbled (still awe-struck) recollections of our Venice trip see my Travelling Blonde reports.

15 March 2006

London - La Dolce Vita Event

If you're in the London area and you're keen on all things Italian, you might be interested in an event taking place at Olympia this weekend. La Dolce Vita is a show open to both trade and the public, with marketing stands and special events. We've no idea how good this 'festival' is, but there are plenty of interesting exhibitors listed and it's worth a look if you don't mind the entrance charge.

4 March 2006

Rome: see archaeological finds from Bulgaria

In Rome last Monday, when almost all the museums were closed, we found a fantastic free exhibition. Until the 15th March, two rooms in the Quirinale (seat of Italy's presidents) are hosting a small display of 'Treasures of Bulgaria', including beautiful archaeological finds from ancient burial sites in that country. Some of the items on show are exquisite, so fine they nearly moved us to tears. One of our favourites was a marvellous, delicate gold crown of laurel leaves. Visit if you can; visiting is free, doesn't take long, and you get to peek inside the grand Quirinale Palace - be prepared to go through security scanning, though.
> Press release (in Italian) with opening hours
> Our guide to events in Rome
> photos from the excavations
> more Thracian tomb discoveries (BBC: August 2006)

24 February 2006

Rail strike 3rd and 4th March - CANCELLED

There is due to be a rail strike in Italy next weekend, from 9pm on the 3rd of March until 9pm on 4th March. A number of guaranteed services should run - see the Trenitalia website for latest information.
UPDATE: the strike has now been cancelled so all services should run normally. Keep your eyes on the trenitalia site for future disruptions.

More on trains in Italy

Berlusconi and the media

Another Berlusconi story from the BBC: Berlusconi relishes power of TV.

Overseas commentators are forever marvelling – and ordinary Italians complaining – at the state of affairs in this country where one man controls almost every national television channel. As well as the stations he actually owns – which are renowned for their vacuous quiz shows and scantily-clad dancing girls – he also, as Prime Minister, pretty much controls the state broadcaster Rai. As a sop to critics, Berlusconi last year claimed to have reduced his power over the popular Mediaset channels – although they are still under his family's control.

When I was in Italy a month ago, my Italian friends were joking about the number of times their PM pops up on television. And a few television programmes were bold enough to mock him (that didn't stop them broadcasting his phone-ins, though). As owner of football club AC Milan, he appears on sports shows, ringing up to air his views live on television. There's no escape from his presence.

Italians watch a huge amount of television, and it's easy to see how control of the airwaves might equal control of voters. During recent protests by the arts sector in Italy over proposed Government withdrawal of funding, there were claims that the whole nation is being 'dumbed-down' by the Berlusconi diet of reality tv shows and the much-admired veline (coy dancing girls), with Italians less interested in their artistic heritage than ever before. Certainly living in Italy I've sometimes been reminded of Orwell's 1984. But that, along with the veline, is another subject for another day.
Read more about Berlusconi from Wikipedia.

11 February 2006

The best Venice hotels

We'll soon be developing a new and better Venice section for our website. If any visitors have any suggestions or comments based on recent trips, we'd be glad to receive them.

In the meantime, we've done some research on the most popular hotels, based on the opinions of past guests, and here are our favourites so far:
Most five-stars in Venice have very mixed, even poor, reviews. One of the best seems to be the Luna Baglioni. Prices are high, but not as painful as some. Not all guests are happy with the room sizes but on the whole feedback is very positive.
Good options with fewer stars include:
Al Ponte dei Sospiri - small and romantic.
Palazzo Abadessa - this small hotel sounds like paradise, to judge from the rave reviews of past visitors. We can't wait to stay there ourselves.
Hotel Abbazia is close to the railway station and is praised for its friendly staff.

You can get good value-for-money at 3-star hotels which are 'town house suites' under the Italian classification system. These are usually small and lack public spaces (bars etc.), but are often more comfortable than the rating suggests:
Ca' del Campo is near St. Mark's Square, and is praised for stylish rooms, friendly staff and value for money.
La Locandiera is also in a great location near St. Mark's Square (but 'very quiet'), and has excellent feedback from guests ... we'll soon have our own review of the accommodation.

Check our Venice pages in a few weeks for much-expanded coverage of the sinking city.

7 February 2006

Snow in Italy

Italy's mountains always get plenty of snow, but this winter has seen some exceptionally cold weather, with snowstorms extending even to the southerly and less mountainous parts of the country.

See some striking Photos of Alberobello under snow. Some schools have been closed and ferry services suspended in southern Italy and Sicily: Snow in Taormina (article in Italian). But the cold isn't all bad - organisers up in Turin are hoping for the right kind of weather for the Winter Olympics.

6 February 2006

Cheap train travel in Italy

If you're thinking about travelling around Italy by train, you should always check the railways website http://www.trenitalia.com for special offers. If you register and book online you can get some fantastic bargains.

Currently there is a 'Happy Train' offer where you can buy 'last minute' tickets (travel within the next seven days) from €10. There are also €15 tickets for a range of trains including Intercity, Intercity Plus and overnight services. Deals on the fast Eurostar trains start at €29. This could save some money on longer journeys (always check the standard price too), and these special prices often give you the option of travelling in first-class for the same price.

You can check availability online - when you are booking your journey, select the appropriate tariff. Sometimes the Italian version of the site has more up-to-date information and bargains (if necessary, sit down with a dictionary; the savings are worth it).

After one attempt to buy tickets in person in Rome (witness to a disagreement which culminated in the ticket clerk calling her customer an 'ignorant pig' and then slamming her kiosk shut in front of a line of customers) I have made all my bookings online or at the machines in stations. The system is amazingly efficient, and you can even travel without a ticket on many services, as long as you have your booking reference number and details. I've travelled the length of Italy for bargain prices which have sickened my Italian travelling companions. I even have a reward card.

Read more about the different types of train in Italy. My long account of an even longer journey from Rome down to Sicily can be read in my blog: Slow train to Sicily. Yes, Sicily is an island, but you can get a train all the way there; it's taken apart, rolled onto a boat, then rolled off again at the other end of the crossing.

5 February 2006

Female travellers get free cake

If you're a female wondering about travelling alone in Italy, or anyone who's curious to know what it's like journeying blonde and female in a land of dark hair and old-fashioned ways, check out http://travelling-blonde.blogspot.com, inspired by research trips for Italy Heaven. Expect opinion, generalisations, and very long accounts of dull train journeys.

4 February 2006

Welcome to the blog

Welcome to our brand-new blog! We're planning to use this space for easy on-the-hoof updates, Italy news flashes, random musings and anything else that doesn't quite fit on our main Italy Heaven site. Expect irregular postings of news about our site and about Italy in general as well as odd (sometimes very odd) anecdotes from our travels and links to things we fancy. And anything else we feel like.