31 December 2016

2016: Another year of Italy travels

As usual I spent as much time as possible this year in my once-home of Venice. I've always loved the city in winter when it feels like a proper local town - but inevitably a unique one. In January it was icy - but still sunny enough on one day that people were eating outdoors.

In March I climbed up Venice's famous spiral staircase, Scala Contarini del Bovolo, for the first time.

At Easter I spent a week in Sorrento, with misgivings. It turned out well and I found some lovely spots on the peninsula including hilltop villages, the beach at Marina del Cantone and a weird, haunted summer holiday 'village'.

I visited Herculaneum for the first time, and enjoyed a peaceful tour of the Villa Oplontis for a view of how the wealthy Roman elite lived.

Venice in spring is busier than in winter, but you do get to enjoy the bright colours and wisteria of the springtime city.

The island of Capri is usually my answer to the question "Where's your favourite place in Italy?" After a few years away I had forgotten just how glorious the scenery and history really are.

The weather was unseasonably cold for May, but I managed some walks, meals in scenic spots, a trip to watch bird conservationists at work, and an entirely unnecessary extra climb up the hill when I dropped my new swanky sunglasses on my final morning. I was also lucky enough to see the annual procession and celebrations of Capri's saint, San Costanzo.

After Capri I think I spent only one or two days in London before taking another flight, to Sicily this time. I had fancied a week getting away from it all on the Aeolian islands. Tiny, chic Panarea is the perfect place to relax ... or work. The staff of the Hotel Cincotta used ropes to haul a table onto my seafront terrace so I could work in comfort.

After a few nights on Panarea I travelled to the livelier Lipari where I was gratified to be remembered by a few locals, took a panoramic walk and worked on a rooftop

I made a summer trip to Venice where greenery peeps out from the buildings in unexpected places, and where I found surprising pleasure in pottering about in sunshine, sitting on ferries and doing nothing on the beach.

In early September I headed back to Campania for some late summer sun, this time returning to the islands of Ischia and Procida. I arrived on Ischia in time to see a re-enactment - with fireworks - of Saracen invasions and spent a few days getting to know the island. My favourite and most surprising excursion was to the island's highest point, Monte Epomeo which offers both attractive scenery for walking and an open-air restaurant.

I also tracked down a couple of the filming locations for the 1960 film Plein Soleil, starring Alain Delon.

I was pleased to find that little Procida still has the 1950s charm I was so impressed by when I first visited.

By December I was back in wintry Venice for my last trip of the year, in a rented flat with a glorious view over a campo, and enjoying a mixture of sunshine and fog.

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11 December 2016

A new roof terrace in the heart of Venice, at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi (also known as the Fontego dei Tedeschi) is a large historic building next to the Rialto bridge in the heart of Venice. Built in the 16th century, it used to be the trading post of German merchants in the city, and its exterior was decorated with frescoes by Giorgione and Titian. Until a few years ago, this was Venice's central post office, shabby but imposing. The last time I visited, I was collecting a package of books.

Now the building has been restored and transformed into a high-end shopping experience. Somewhere between a mall and a department store, the new-look Fondaco dei Tedeschi is made up of concessions selling luxury brands - basically like an airport shopping experience but in fancier surroundings. There's still an old well head in the central courtyard, but the space has now been covered with a roof. The interior is smart and imposing, but of course the building's old, shabby sense of history has vanished for ever. Though the luxury fabrics, jewellery and leather goods on display are, I suppose, a kind of connection to the building's earliest incarnation and to Venice's mercantile past.

The main reason for visiting the Fondaco dei Tedeschi isn't the fashion, though. The restored structure is a sight worth seeing, but best of all - if you can ignore the implications for the building's historic integrity - is the new roof terrace. High above central Venice, this small platform offers a unique viewpoint over the city. I visited on a misty winter day and Venice looked marvellously atmospheric laid out below, red roof-tops stretching into the murk. On a clear day you'll have views across the lagoon and as far as the Dolomites.

Entrance to the roof terrace is free, though numbers are limited. Only 80 visitors are allowed up during each 15-minute slot; you can get a token for the next available slot at a 'concierge' desk at the top of the escalators on the fourth floor. On a busy winter's day when the city was full of Italian visitors, I had to wait about 25 minutes.

My tip is to visit on the hour, ideally at midday, when you'll hear all the church bells of Venice ringing out around you, and even see one or two of them swinging in their high belfries.

The Fondaco has another attraction to tourists in Venice. It has toilets (fourth floor) which when I visited were both free to use, and clean - a very convenient resource in a city where public toilets are scarce and expensive.

There's a smart café in the central courtyard, and expensive Italian foodstuffs for sale on the ground floor, with men's and women's fashion, perfumes, jewellery and accessories on the floors above.

As well as the festive Christmas trees, the loggia parapets were decorated with gorgeous reproduction historic fabrics by the Venetian firm Rubelli.

Excellent free-of-charge opportunities like this don't always last in Italy, and I'm unsure if permanent public access to the roof was a condition of planning permission, so do add this to your itinerary if/while you can. A visit to the roof terrace is a memorable experience and an addition to the must-sees of central Venice.

Other high viewpoints offering different perspectives over Venice: the Campanile di San Marco (admission fee), Campanile di San Giorgio Maggiore (admission fee), Skyline bar at the Hilton hotel (free entry, expensive drinks), the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (now re-opened; admission fee). And of course from various little private wooden terraces perched above rooftops, the altane of Venice, if you are lucky enough to get access to one. And less all-encompassing views can be enjoyed from the top-floor windows of tall buildings which are sometimes open for exhibitions, including the Conservatorio di Musica.

You can read a lot more about Venice including other insider tips and background information in my guidebook: Italy Heaven Guide to Venice.

8 August 2016

After the British Museum: itineraries for touring historic Sicily

There are just a few days left to visit the British Museum's current exhibition Sicily: Culture and Conquest (closes 14th August 2016). If you've visited the museum's show, or are planning to visit this week, and find yourself tempted by the thought of Sicilian travel, I've come up with some ideas for itineraries, below.

The exhibition is a good introduction to the history of the remarkable Italian island, with photos and exhibits to whet the appetite for travel. It concentrates mostly on two phases of the island's long and varied history: the Greeks and the Normans. These are only two of the outside cultures which have occupied Sicily, so it's not a complete overview, but given the wealth of history and the museum's limited space, it's a fair choice. There are brief illustrations of other phases of history, including the final exhibit, a painting of the Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina (from the National Gallery).

Exihibits predominantly come from the British Museum itself, from the archaeological museums in Siracusa and Palermo, and from Agrigento and Gela. The Cappella Palatina in Palermo features in the form of large and detailed photographs.

If you still have time left after seeing the exhibition, upstairs in Room 90 you'll find a large collection of Francis Towne's Italian watercolours; mostly depicting Rome and the surrounding area (this free exhibition also closes on 14th August).

Sicily historical itineraries

If you've seen the exhibition and are ready to think about a holiday in Sicily, here are some ideas for itineraries which follow on from the British Museum's displays:

Greek itinerary

This short Greek itinerary can be joined onto the Norman itinerary below to give an overview of these two eras - as well as seeing some of Sicily's finest sights. It's easiest to hire a car to tour Sicily, but if you're patient and plan around bus and train timetables, it's possible to see the island by public transport - this is what I've always done. Palermo is the best airport to use for this tour, though Catania is also feasible for an extended itinerary.

Selinunte - one of Sicily's less-known treasures, this Greek site by the sea is large and evocative. It was destroyed in a Carthaginian siege; Sicily's history of conquest is very evident here. It's a big site so I'd suggest staying nearby. Selinunte is reached by local bus from Castelvetrano, which is on the island's rail and bus network. Salemi buses run from Palermo to Castelvetrano, and they also operate the local service to SelinunteLumia buses connect Castelvetrano with Agrigento.

Ruins of Selinunte
 Agrigento - the Valley of the Temples is rightly famous; this must be one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. The hillside town and the museum (which contains some of the exhibits featured in the British Museum exhibition) are also worth visiting; staying at least one night will give you the best chance of enjoying the town - two nights will allow for a more leisurely exploration. Agrigento is about two hours by train from Palermo - though if you have time, you can extend your tour to Siracusa in the south-eastern corner of the island.

Siracusa -  a great city break destination in its own right, Siracusa has a history as an important Greek city, an archaeological zone, and an excellent museum. It adds quite a bit of extra travel to this itinerary, so if you're planning a short holiday, you could consider leaving the town for a future trip. To reach Siracusa from Agrigento, you can catch a bus to Catania airport and then change to a bus for Siracusa - or catch a train to Siracusa from Catania station. Heading from Siracusa back north, the easiest option for public transport is probably a bus (Interbus) from Siracusa to Palermo, where you can continue the tour into Norman Sicily.

Norman Itinerary

Following on from the Greek tour above, this itinerary on Sicily's northern coast allows you to see fine architecture, museums and mosaics - as well as enjoying city life, Sicilian street food and a break by the seaside.

Palermo cathedral
Palermo -  a good base for a couple of days or more, Sicily's capital is the best place to experience Greek and Arab Sicily. Important sights include the Palatine Chapel in Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cathedral (don't miss a tour up to the roof) and the mosaics in the church of La Martorana. Palermo's archaeological museum has been closed for years for restoration, but does host exhibitions; when open it's well worth visiting.

Monreale - a short bus ride from the centre of Palermo, Monreale's Norman cathedral, cloisters and gold mosaics are among the wonders of Norman Sicily.

Cefalù- a lovely seaside town where you can relax on the beach, explore the old town centre, climb up to hillside ruins and admire some more amazing mosaics in the town's Norman cathedral. A good place to enjoy some holiday atmosphere after Sicily's museums and ruins. Just a hour by train from Palermo. To get to Palermo airport, catch the train back to Palermo, and then the airport bus from the station.

Sicily's other historical highlights

Agrigento Ephebe, Archaeological Museum Agrigento
To get an insight into the other eras of Sicily's history, a circuit around the island's coastline takes the visitor through some remarkable sights. It would makes sense to allow at least three weeks for a more complete tour - or divide the island up and visit more than once, seeing the eastern half of the island (flying into Catania airport) and the western half (Palermo airport) separately. Sicily is a really rich and varied destination which definitely repays multiple visits. Highlights include:

MoziaErice and the Egadi islands - Sicily's western coast has ruins and artefacts of the Phoenician occupants of Sicily, as well as the interesting Egadi islands, the site of the sea battles which gave Rome dominion over Sicily.

Taormina - Sicily's most popular resort, Taormina doesn't have good museums, but its Greco-Roman theatre is spectacular. Important to Greeks, Romans and then to tourists from the 19th century onwards, Taormina contains a lot of Sicily's history in one small picturesque town. Taormina's on the island's eastern coast, not far from historic Catania.

Lipari - The Aeolian islands were strategically located on ancient sea routes, and Lipari was a well-off island in Greek times. The archaeological museum has an excellent collection of Greek vases and of terracotta masks.

Baroque towns - Sicily's Baroque towns, rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, offer an attractive contrast to the island's ancient archaeology. They give an insight into more recent Sicilian history, are attractive places to stay, and are increasingly popular as holiday destinations thanks for the Sicilian TV detective Inspector MontalbanoRagusa is one of the best destinations, along with ScicliNoto and Modica, famous for its chocolate.

Marble altar-decoration, 9th century, Archaeological Museum Agrigento (featured in the British Museum exhibition)

Head of telamon, Agrigento Archaeological Museum
Admiring the mosaic of Roger II being crowned by Christ, La Martorana, Palermo

3 May 2016

Sorrento Apartments - Review

Sorrento Apartments have several self-catering holiday flats in a building in the heart of Sorrento. This is one of the cheaper accommodation options in the historic centre. I rented a flat anonymously in April 2016 - this is my review.

I booked a one-bedroom holiday apartment online at fairly short notice. I was looking for somewhere affordable and central, with cooking facilities, and Sorrento Apartments was just about the cheapest option - and it had good reviews from past guests. I booked four nights at a total cost of €293 (€73 per night).

The apartment building has a cafe-bar on the ground floor run by the same management, and there's a reception desk inside at the back. This is a convenient arrangement for guests as it means there's almost always someone around to offer maps, advice, refreshments or a chat. When you arrive, look out for the name Sorrento Apartments on the wall to help identify the building (see bottom photograph).

My flat was on the first floor, accessed by stairs or lift. The window looked out over another building, with extractor fans in its wall.These were sometimes audible, and didn't provide the nicest of outlooks.

Decorated in a grey-white that looked a bit shabby, the flat was clean and decent, but had a rather tired air. Generally, though, I found it well-equipped and comfortable. An efficient air conditioning unit provided a bit of added warmth in the cool spring evenings. The bedroom had a range of 3 lighting options, operable from both sides of the bed. The shutter had a switch to open and close it. Furniture in the bedroom consisted of a large desk, double bed (two singles pushed together), two stools, bedside tables, and a rail for clothes. There wasn't a suitcase stand, though there was space for a suitcase on a chest of drawers containing spare bedding. There was a large flat screen TV on the wall.

The kitchen was through a doorway from the bedroom (no door). It was minimal, but adequate, providing two hobs and basic equipment (two of each cutlery item). Salt, washing-up liquid and a cleaning cloth were supplied. There was an electric kettle, although this was dodgy and didn't turn itself off, leaving the plastic parts to get dangerously hot. There was enough cooking equipment to make a pasta meal, prepare rolls and eat a take-away dessert, which was all I wanted to do. A convenient supermarket is just a few minutes' walk away behind the cathedral.

The flat's bathroom was again basic but ok: toilet, washbasin, storage unit, towels, minimal sachet toiletries, shower, hair-drier. This room had some minor damage around the shower which would have been better repaired. The flat didn't have a washing machine, but if you wanted to do hand-washing or hang wet beach-wear up, there was a useful washing line outside window and pegs supplied.

The street at the front of the apartment building is one of Sorrento's pedestrian lanes which can get busy at night, and several restaurants and bars had outdoor tables. I used earplugs to mute the background noise, which quietened fairly early, but might be more of a disturbance in the summer months.

Although the flats feel like self-contained holiday homes, they're actually serviced, which was a nice bonus. A cleaner came each day to give a quick clean and provide fresh towels.

The flat was absolutely fine as an affordable and practical base. I found it a bit disappointing at first, probably because the decor was a bit drab and tired, and I was rather spoiled after a couple of nights in the 5-star Grand Hotel La Favorita around the corner. But I settled in, and I liked having a retreat from the tourist scene and an alternative to eating out every night.

I think Sorrento Apartments offer a good practical place to stay in the town centre, and my stay was good value for money. Although the flat was simple, this was reflected in the price; it was cheaper than most other places when I booked. You can get a bit cooped up in a flat but at least you have the open space and views of the Villa Comunale park very close at hand, and a good choice of bars, restaurants etc. nearby. The location is pretty much ideal for sight-seeing and enjoying what the centre of Sorrento has to offer. I'd recommend the flats if you're looking for an independent stay, a cheaper option, or a practical family base. There are a range of flats on offer, including flats with balconies and flats sleeping up to four guests.

> Sorrento Apartments - check availability and prices
> More apartments and other accommodation in Sorrento

30 April 2016

Grand Hotel La Favorita, Sorrento - Review

This is my review of the Grand Hotel La Favorita, Sorrento, where I stayed anonymously in March 2016.

The 5-star Grand Hotel La Favorita is an elegant airy oasis in the crowded heart of Sorrento. It doesn't have the big views or clifftop location of Sorrento's other posh hotels (it's a block inland and its view is partly blocked by another hotel) but it offers prices which can be very reasonable for a hotel of this standard.

I booked the hotel online for two nights at Easter, and paid €358 for a double room for two nights. At the then exchange rate it worked out at about £144 per night, so for a couple sharing it would have cost £72 per person per night - good value for a five-star hotel.

My double room was very large, with a beautiful local-style tiled floor decorated with birds and geometric motifs. There were other touches of local style in the decor, including an elaborate lamp-stand - and even the spare-toilet-roll holder was a piece of local pottery.

The room faced south, away from the sea, and was overlooked by a residential building. Some of the more expensive rooms on upper floors do have a partial sea view, but I had opted for a 'classic double'.  A wide private terrace had two sun-loungers on it, as well as a table and chairs. Despite the lack of sea views, it would have been a pleasant place to relax - I was sorry it was raining when I arrived.

The furniture was stylish and excellent quality - unusually, there was more of it than was really necessary. I had no particular use for a folding-leaf painted table, though I suppose for room service (reasonably priced) it might come in handy, nor did I need an elaborate old-fashioned writing desk, though it was lovely. It was all rather William Morris - everything was either useful or attractive.

The more practical furnishings included a larger modern desk, convenient for working, with a power socket and wired internet.  There was a mirror above the desk, and a full-length mirror on the door of the wide wardrobe, a TV, two armchairs and a low table, bedside tables, a suitcase stand, safe and a mini-bar. The bed was very wide, made up of two large singles.  Everything was modern and well-designed, with the all-important power sockets on both sides of the bed, along with lighting controls and buttons for opening and closing the blind over the large windows.

The bathroom was large too, with twin washbasins, soft white towels,  a bath with a good shower above, an extendable clothes line,  and more bird-decorated tiles.

The hotel provided complimentary mineral water bottles (still and sparkling), slippers, toiletries and dressing gowns. In the evenings there was a turn-down service and chocolates beside the bed. The free wi-fi seemed to work throughout the building.

I found this a very peaceful place to sleep. The room was up a little dead-end corridor alongside one other room. The hotel has about 85 rooms, I believe, but the layout meant there wasn't much through traffic or noise from other guests.

The Favorita's public spaces are very large. A bar with lots of white leather seating, a big restaurant/breakfast room, a huge foyer. The hotel is dotted with objets d'art. There is an attractive garden terrace with lemon trees, seating and signs to a 'secret garden' - a shady terrace. On arrival I was given a voucher for a welcome drink - actually, since I was paying for a double room, I got two welcome drinks. So that was a couple of visits to the bar, sitting and working with a glass of Prosecco and nibbles.

The hotel is in the centre of Sorrento, conveniently close to the town's best views and to a lane down to Marina Grande, at the bottom of a lane descending from the cathedral. It's walkable from the railway station in about 10-15 minutes, though on a busy day you might find your way impeded by irritating tour groups. Print out a map to help you navigate.

I didn't dine in the hotel restaurant but I did eat at a restaurant which belongs to the same family, 'O Parucchiano on Corso Italia, where guests have a 10% discount. This was a remarkable place with room for hundreds of guests in a series of garden pavilions.

Breakfast at the Grand Hotel La Favorita was one of the best I've seen in Italy. A large buffet included cakes, biscuits, pastries, bread and rolls, home made jams, cereals, fruit, yoghurts, even delizia al limone one day. There was a cooked  breakfast selection of bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs and also cheese and ham slices, tomatoes and other savoury items. A chef was on standby to make omelettes, pancakes and fried eggs on demand. The only thing I was disappointed in was the fruit drinks; Italian hotels always serve sweetened watered-down juice instead of the freshly-squeezed version.

As I was visiting well before the Italian summer season, I thought the hotel's roof terrace was closed and it was only when I went to look at it, on departure, that I found it was actually open. The terrace was absolutely idyllic, and it was enough to make me wish I'd splashed out on a longer stay. It was early evening, and the streets of Sorrento were shadowed and increasingly cool. But up here there was still warm sunshine, a blue  swimming pool (that was closed), sun-loungers where a couple of guests were reading books, and an elegant seating area around a bar, with views to Vesuvius, and over the rooftops and domes of Sorrento. It was heavenly. The thought of being able to retreat from the busy streets up here with a book or laptop made me sorry to be leaving. I wished that I'd found the terrace sooner - perhaps the receptionist should mention it to guests? - but the previous evenings, in March, may have been too cold anyway.

I really enjoyed staying at the hotel. It was large and not particularly personal. But service was good, rooms and public spaces were excellent, and it made a luxurious haven when I came in from a tiring day out, or from the bustle of Sorrento. It's a good choice for for a 'special' holiday - a honeymoon perhaps, or romantic break - or just a comfortable base, with 5-star standards at an affordable price.

> Grand Hotel La Favorita prices and availability

27 April 2016

Venice - Chioggia, Ca' Roman & an eerie walk off the beaten track

One of my my favourite excursions from Venice is by public transport down the outer edge of the lagoon to Chioggia. The number 11 is a bus-boat route which journeys all the way from the Lido island (between Venice and the lagoon), down the length of narrow Pellestrina, a fishermen's island, and then across the southern lagoon to Chioggia. It's a very unusual public transport route, with a convoy (usually) of two buses heading down the long thin Lido, driving onto a ferry to cross to Pellestrina and driving the length of Pellestrina. Then all the remaining passengers pile off, and board a boat for the last stretch.

Chioggia is picturesque and low-key. There are a few sights of interest, but last time I visited I just took a stroll down the main street and most attractive canal, joined three nuns in contemplating a Carpaccio painting in a church, then enjoyed a plate of gnocchi by the canal. A wedding group posed for photos on a bridge, and seagulls pecked around the closed fish market.

I then took an impromptu boat trip (a jaunty little boat was about to depart; I couldn't resist). It was a brief but interesting trip in the Bragozzo Ulisse, with a jovial captain and a jaunty theme song. We saw some of the fishing boats which form Chioggia's substantial fishing fleet. They mostly seemed to have names like Gladiatore and Predatore.

The day out got stranger on the way back to Venice. There was just about time in the late afternoon to break the journey, so I hopped off the ferry - on another whim - at Ca' Roman. Ca' Roman is an island by the southern entrance to the lagoon, made up of sand dunes and woodland. A nature reserve has been established here because of its important birdlife (Riserva Naturale Ca' Roman) .Footpaths head through trees and out onto the beach looking out over the Adriatic. Old military fortifications stick up through the sand and shrub, some of it daubed with graffiti. Trippers appear and disappear in the distance, mostly the island is empty. Leaving, I passed a cluster of teens clutching cans and cigarettes.

Ca' Roman is joined to the island of Pellestrina by the long white sea wall (i Murazzi) which has protected the Venetian lagoon from the sea since the eighteenth century.  A stone walkway heads along the lagoon side of the wall, so you can actually walk between the two islands.

The sun was getting low when I set out. A few cyclists passed by, but mostly I was alone in a strange stretched-out landscape (waterscape?); with the long white wall curving for what seemed like miles in front of me, the lapping water of the lagoon on my left and the sea invisible on the far side of the the high white wall. The sun dropped and turned red as I walked, the lagoon turning pink broken by the wake of a passing number 11 ferry. As I arrived on the island of Pellestrina I found a man on a ladder looking over the sea wall, with a cat sitting alongside.

 The Venetian lagoon has many odd, bizarre and breathtaking scenes but walking along the seawall that afternoon was one of the strangest experiences I've encountered here.

> Chioggia (Italy Heaven)

8 April 2016

Naples Airport (NAP) - British Airways lounge and travel experience

Naples airport (Napoli Capodichino, NAP) is close to the city centre and well-connected, with a bus which runs every 15 minutes to the main railway station and the port for ferries. Stazione Centrale to the airport only takes 20 minutes - depending of course on Neapolitan traffic. There's also a useful coach service to Sorrento.

I found arrivals and passport control in disarray when I landed on this trip - a 40-minute rugby-scrum wait behind a non-EU flight bearing migrants. There was a glitch checking in for departure too, with IT problems at the check-in desks. Otherwise departure went quite smoothly, though the use of buses and the time spent hanging around on buses, is always annoying.

If you are flying BA Club Europe or are a BA Executive Club member with silver/gold status (I'm not sure about bronze), be aware that there's a convenient 'Fast Track' priority route through security in departures.  This is marked off to the left as you approach the security screening area. The fast track option wasn't mentioned at check-in, so I'm not certain who exactly is entitled to use it, but I was waved through with my Club Europe boarding pass. You can also pay for access (€5). Electronic signs indicated a 10 minute wait at security, but the Fast Track was empty and I sailed through in moments.

The lounge for BA customers at Naples airport is shared with other airlines, and passengers can also pay to enter (€22). Located by Gate 17, the lounge is still the wrong side of final passport control, so allow time to get to your gate. It's very small, with armchairs, reclining loungers but no workstations and no dedicated charging points for electronic devices, although there are a few randomly-placed sockets if you hunt around. It was crowded when I arrived, to the extent of strangers having to share sofas. At the back of lounge are a couple of toilets and a shower.

Drinks available include hot drinks, limoncello(!), wines and beer as well as water and fruit juice, all on a help-yourself basis. When I visited (late afternoon/early evening) there was a reasonable selection of snacks. This included peanuts, crisps, salted biscuits, little cheese and meat slices, and small items which may have been sausage rolls. There was more choice of sweet foods, including speciality local pastries such as sfogliatelle and little biscuits with chocolate filling. Eating here isn't really a substitute for a meal, nor at all healthy, but if you've skipped lunch (as I did) you can find enough to fill you up until you're fed on the flight (or not fed, if you're a vegetarian Club Europe passenger, but that's a story for another day).

30 March 2016

Yotel Gatwick review: my night in a 'sleeping cabin'

With an early morning flight and trains disrupted due to Easter, I tried to make my journey easier by staying overnight in a 'pod'-style hotel at Gatwick: Yotel Gatwick Airport. Booking online in advance, I paid £56 for the night.

This is a very hassle-free way to get some sleep before or after a flight. The Yotel is at Gatwick South Terminal - you don't even need to go outside -  and it's just seconds from the railway station and the 24-hour transit to the North Terminal. There are signs to follow from the station, and you simply descend in a lift and find yourself entering the Yotel.

With a 6.30am flight, I turned up at around 8:30pm. On arrival I checked in at Mission Control - AKA reception. The young male receptionist was very polite and helpful.

Armed with my card key I found my way to my cabin. In order to fit as many as possible in, these little rooms are evidently staggered over and under each other; some are entered up a few steps and others down. The doors have windows in them which can be closed by pulling down a blind.

I'd booked a standard cabin. The website explains that this is for 1-2 people - as they state, it would be a tight squeeze for two, though you could manage it if you're very intimate and very keen to save money. It's like travelling on a sleeper train, though slightly more spacious. The single bed (a comfortable width) is high up in a large recess, accessed using a step which folds down. Up here there's a shelf, lighting controls and a flat screen TV at the foot of the bed. The 'living' area is narrow and it's a tight fit with one suitcase. A table folds down beneath a mirror, while a coat hanger offers a place to stow your coat and travelling clothes. For storage there's also a narrow shelf and an overhead rack with a spare cushion. A folding stool hangs upon the back of  the door.

The cabin has power sockets and USB charging sockets (I wish I'd discovered this beforehand, as it would have saved me from taking a UK charger on holiday). Opposite the bed, across the living space, is the 'bathroom', divided off by a glass screen and sliding door (you do have to be very intimate to share). Here there's a toilet, washbasin, and a good overhead rainfall shower. The towel was thick and soft; the white duvet and mattress were comfortable, and all the fittings and furnishings seemed good quality.

Useful items including ear plugs, an alarm clock, shower cap and spare towels, along with hot drinks and water, are available free from Mission Control upon request. Other toiletries and food are for sale.

The only really audible sound is the rush of the air conditioning ring in the ceiling. This bothered me at night, and although the receptionist adjusted it for me, it was impossible to eliminate all the noise and the breeze of cool air. Ventilation is obviously necessary in such a small space, but this was still a distracting annoyance.

I enjoyed the design and neatness of the space-saving ideas. You wouldn't want to spend much waking time in the cabin, but then that's not what they're for. These are for sleeping. Signs in the hall urge "Sssssh".  If you do spend any waking time here, with the table and stool, it's possible to eat and to work if you don't plan to sleep at once. I thought it was all clever and convenient. However I did have problems sleeping. Whether it was the distracting air-conditioning, pre-travel tension or latent claustrophobia, it seemed very hard to relax. I think that's probably just me, though. I'd still return for the sheer convenience of the Yotel, and I think lots of travellers must find this a very handy way to rest before or after an inconveniently-timed flight.

I found the hotel friendly and efficient. I liked the bowl of chocolate Easter bunnies at reception. If you're claustrophobic the small spaces and lack of daylight could be a problem. Otherwise, this is a neat and clever solution to getting some sleep with as little hassle as possible. If the idea doesn't appeal, there are traditional hotels at Gatwick where you may find prices not much higher.

There are a few shops and a branch of Boots in the South Terminal, close to the Yotel lift. If you're arriving in the evening, you may be able to find food at reduced prices in the Marks and Spencer food shop.

> Yotel Gatwick availability and booking

22 March 2016

Resort Borgo San Rocco, Savoca - Italy Heaven review

I stayed in Savoca with my parents for one night at the end of a trip to Sicily. The Borgo San Rocco resort (and the great guest reviews I'd read online) was as much of an attraction as the village itself.

We arranged a local taxi through the hotel for our arrival from Taormina and departure for Catania Airport. For three of us this was a cost-effective way of avoiding the hassle of public transport. The hotel's helpfulness over the phone was a foretaste of the customer service we'd receive in person.

Our taxi climbed into Savoca and followed the narrow hillside lane leading to the hotel resort. We knew we'd done the right thing to book the hotel as soon as we stepped out of the taxi and saw the panoramic setting, the well-kept hotel building and its little tables outside in the sun.

The hotel staff seemed genuinely delighted to see us and gave us a warm and friendly welcome and the offer of a drink. The main hotel building houses the reception, a bar area and the dining/breakfast room - plus a remarkable connecting corridor cut from the rocky hillside. We'd arrived in the morning so only one of our rooms was ready; we left our baggage and after a helpful introductory chat with the receptionist we headed out to explore.

Although we only stayed at the hotel for one night, the staff were extremely friendly, warm and helpful. They insisted that all their guests were like family, and when we left we all kissed goodbye with real feelings of friendship. During our stay I saw cheerful staff lending a hand at all kinds of tasks, and even carrying a guest's baby around to be introduced.

The hotel is a 'scattered' resort with its rooms distributed among restored village homes in a little hamlet along the hillside from the main part of the village of Savoca. Seeing the ruinous state of many Savoca houses, it was good to think that here tourism - managed carefully - can actually do some good. The hotel was very restrained in style, and its buildings restored sympathetically, so its impact seemed very positive for the area.

Our two double rooms were in the same row of converted cottages. Accessed directly from the little access lane, both were comfortable, classic hotel rooms with modern comforts. We had little balconies overlooking the hillside, with the hotel swimming pool below and green hills across the valley.

My room was a decent size and very standard in style, with a wooden floor and good-quality furnishings including a big wardrobe, fridge unit, bedside cabinets, a suitcase stand, mirror and coat hooks (I am always delighted to find coat hooks; they're very rare in Italian hotels). The smart bathroom featured a good rainfall shower and good-quality toiletries including an olive oil shower gel. There was air-conditioning for cooling or lowering the room's temperature, and a welcome message plus chocolates. I had no phone signal in the room, probably because of the steep hillside location.

Savoca's village square was a pleasant stroll from the hotel; lanes run in both directions around the little hilltop behind the hotel so exploring the village made a good and picturesque circuit. With churches, a little museum, a crypt, village lanes and a hilltop to explore, there's enough to occupy the visitor for a day in Savoca.

The hotel's views, outdoor tables and swimming pool also offer a great base for whiling away comfortable hours. We were visiting at the end of the summer season, but I made time for a short hour by the pool in the afternoon before the sun moved behind the hilltop and cast the area into shadow. The pool is situated on a grassy plateau beneath the hotel; there are steps or a steep lane down. The walk only takes a couple of minutes and I didn't find it a problem, but you'd probably want to take all your books, sun lotions etc. so you won't be having to climb up and down on a hot day.

We ate dinner in the hotel in the evening, which began with a free tasting of sparkling wine. Food was in refined portions and elegantly presented; not cheap but not extortionately priced either, and very good quality. The menu was short and seasonal, focussing on local ingredients. I enjoyed cauliflower with goats' cheese fondue, ravioli with aubergine and panna cotta. I'm not usually a fan of cauliflower but the chef here had produced a delicious dish; we all thought the entire meal was excellent. Service was slow, but it was explained that one of the waiters was at home ill.

During the meal we became acquainted with the hotel's owner and unique selling point, Vittorio. A wonderful character to whom all guests are personal friends, he moved around the dining room chatting at each table. With a host of interesting anecdotes, life philosophy and local history to share, he was also enthusiastic and generous about offering samples of local wine, cheese and desserts. At one point during dinner he produced a guitar for another guest, and a small assortment of guests moved out onto the terrace for a song and some more chat.

Breakfast was a generous buffet  which included meat and cheese slices, cereals, fresh fruit juices, teas, local fresh bread, croissants, little pastries, a choice of cakes, eggs, fresh fruit, locally-produced jam and cappuccino prepared on request.

We were leaving in the afternoon, but the delights of the hotel had not finished. Vittorio offered to do one of his spaghetti-making demonstrations at lunchtime (a popular event which features in many guest reviews). This impromptu entertainment took place in the spotless hotel kitchen, for us and a newly-arrived pair of guests. Vittorio made a delicious spaghetti meal with tomatoes, olives and garlic (fish were kindly omitted when he learned I was vegetarian). It was fascinating to watch and very enjoyable to eat, served up with wine at a long table with several other guests who'd turned up. Having learned from Vittorio's cooking, I now prepare spaghetti alla Vittorio at home from time to time.  Hopefully the hotel's budget allows for its host's generosity with food and wine; it certainly ought to be classed as highly successful customer relations.

We loved the Borgo San Rocco's blend of simple elegance and warm conviviality. My parents - frequent travellers - have said several times that the hotel is one of the most special they've visited, and how charmed they were by Vittorio. I've been staying in Italian hotels for many years and I would agree that this is one of the best I've encountered. Savoca is a lovely destination - authentic, simple, picturesque - and the hotel is very much in keeping with its setting. If you're looking for a special place to stay in Sicily, or a break during a touring holiday, this is a great place to relax, enjoy yourselves and recharge your batteries.

> Resort Borgo San Rocco
> More about Savoca