Set in an impossibly perfect medieval hilltop village, the stripey food tent is crammed with extended family groups dining on chestnut dishes made with beef or chickpeas before strolling the twisting alleys still decked with the last of summer's fading window boxes to choose their desserts from the selection of cakes all made with, yes you've guessed it, chestnuts. A steady stream of full sacks are delivered to a giant hotplate for roasting then transported at a run to the back of the kitchens to be transformed into more chestnut delicacies. Enjoying the tapestry of brilliant autumn colours in the crisp air certainly enhances the appetite. Not easy to find but definitely worth the trip.
This is the best English language bookshop in Rome. The owner Dermot O'Connell is a great source of information about the fantastic selection of books he stocks and will also be able to tell you where and where not to go. If you need a guide book, a good summer read, an Italian themed read or want to choose from his wide selection of non-fiction titles you must visit via del Moro 45. He also stocks some set books if you need something if you are studying in Rome. I love it!!!!
Via del Moro, 45, 00153 Rome, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/pqIbbX
Shun the condom-and-glass-laden shores of Ostia if you want to visit the beach for a day on your summer hols to Rome.
The beach and sea at Sperlonga are cleaner, prettier and quieter, and only take an hour(ish) to get to by train from Termini, Rome's main train station. The beach is also shallow for quite a long way out to sea so it's a nice paddling spot for children or people with short legs.
Take the Naples slow train, which is at 49 minutes past the hour every hour from 8am and costs 6.20 Euros. Get off at Fondi Sperlonga and then get the beach bus (1 Euro) to the seafront itself.
It's worth leaving the beach for a couple of hours and wandering up to the hilltop town for a drink or a spot of lunch and a gawk at the view.
This festival of food, drink, music and shopping is open on the banks of the Tiber most evenings until August 29th. There are at least a couple of hundred stalls selling everything from pizza and jewellery to art, fried fish, water filters, mojitos, shisha, Mexican food, tarot readings and soap. My personal Fatty McPuddingface award goes to the Bar Pompi ('The King of Tiramisu') kiosk which is doing Pina Colada tiramisu especially for the event, along with strawberry flavour, banana/nutella and the regular coffee variety. So nice not to have to get the Metro all the way out to Re di Roma to stuff myself full of dessert.
It's a lovely excuse to take an evening walk long the river starting at Castello S. Angelo and heading to Isola Tiberina. You can book tables at some of the restaurants in advance or just turn up but you may have a wait if you do so between 8-11pm at the weekend.
My wife and I stayed two weeks in Rome staying at Grand Bed & Breakfast. Was a great choice, lovely accommodation in very central location and the staff were really helpful and pleasant. The room was clean and well appointed, and the bed comfortable and we had daily breakfast served in-room at an agreed time. The room was cleaned every two days, we had fresh towels every two days and bedding every three days. We were able to walk from the hotel to many sights. The area around is packed with restaurants, which some are quite cheap, and Rome's buzzing night life is next door. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay, all in all not a luxury hotel but is perfect if you are looking for somewhere nice to sleep at an affordable price.
The agritourismo Il Piastrino is a family run B&B on a Tuscan farm with apartments and rooms. I recommend it because it is a family run agriturismo, where all food and produce come from the family's farm and the surrounding area. Nothing was too much trouble as they prepared a wonderful Tuscan meal including hams, cheeses with honey, melon and other traditional Italian foods for nine people on very short notice. Furthermore they arranged taxi transport to our next destination in Florence - roughly an hour away. Everything was hassle free. The setting was beautiful among the vineyards and olive groves and the outdoor pool was great to cool off in. It is also a short bicycle ride into the town of Vinci the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Visit the hilltop Etruscan town of Cortona. As you wander around its narrow streets, taking in breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, you may notice that some of it looks familiar. It has infact been used as a backdrop for various films, notably Under the Tuscan Sun, based on the book of the same name by Frances Mayes, and Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. You can continue the film tour in most of Tuscany - towns south of Siena (Stealing Beauty), the Val d'Orcia valley (Gladiator) and obviously Florence (A Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini).
Google map: bit.ly/lovdaV
For a more authentic Tuscan experience, go to Siena in winter. With far fewer tourists, you can see the sights without the crowds and although it's quite cold, the days are usually clear and crisp. Typical Tuscan food is more suitable for winter too - ribollita (vegetable and bread soup, far more delicious than it sounds), pici (local pasta, rather like fat spaghetti) and bistecca alla fiorentina will keep you full and warm for hours. The atmosphere before Christmas is magical - the streets are festooned with garlands made from fir trees and oranges while on New Year's Eve, the Piazza del Campo, filled with revellers of all ages, plays host to a free concert with stars from the Italian music scene.
Piazza del Campo, Siena
Google map: bit.ly/iP31vP
An amazing restaurant with rooms in a valley near to Cortona. The setting is stunning and the pool is to die for. However the main reason to go here is for the food - either a meal in the restaurant or a cookery lesson with Alberto. We learnt how to cook a four course Italian meal (salad, pasta, main, pudding) and then sat down to eat it with Alberto, his lovely English wife and their daughter. An amazing experience, we can't wait to go back and have a full on meal in the restaurant. Prices are very reasonable too.
Head for the hills, and the charming village of Saturnia in the Maremma district of southern Tuscany. Drive past chi-chi spa hotels and end up in a field. Slip into your costume beside your car - don't worry, everyone does - then step into the shallow pools, baths and waterfalls of the beautifully named Le Cascate del Mulino and Le Cascate del Gorillo. Fed from springs 200 metres below the earth, the stunning blue/white water is a constant temperature of 37.5° C.
Admire the view, sitting or lying in one of the many scalloped pools created by countless bottoms since Neolithic, Etruscan and Roman times. Bliss, and it is free! You will emerge smiling and relaxed though smelling somewhat of sulphur. Remember to remove silver jewellery!
Google map: bit.ly/ityUec
Ok, so a trattoria just off the Florence-Siena motorway may not sound like the most picturesque spot for lunch, but don't be deterred. Bar dell'Orso offers up a classic take on the best of Sienese cooking. Take a seat on the terrace with a view of the perfectly preserved medieval walls of Monteriggioni, and feast on an antipasti plate of cured Tuscan hams, followed by homemade pici - a long, square-edged, thick pasta - covered in a tomato and garlic or pecorino and black pepper sauce. Walk off lunch by taking a long leisurely stroll to the nearby Romanesque church of Abbadia a Isola (for directions have a copy of James Lasdun's excellent 'Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria' to hand).
Isola Polvese is the largest island in Lake Trasimeno which is part of Castiglione del Lago. The whole island is a paradise of quiet and a base for scientific studies and education. Beyond that the island does not offer much more than healing stressed souls so it really is very peaceful and off the beaten track - you won't see many fellow tourists. There are school field trips organized for students to come to the environmental laboratories prepared to acquaint them with biodiversity and sustainability. The Garden of Aquatic Plants is a perfect example to learn about biodiversity. On the island there are some interesting sights to do such as the Monastery of San Secondo, the Church of San Julian and the vestiges of a 14th century castle. It's also amazing to swim there with clear calm waters and a sandy shore. The boat trip over to the island is regular and cheap and has stunning scenery. It is a hidden gem in this region. There is also a lovely restaurant on the island and a cafe and a great gift shop with local honey wine etc etc. You won't be disappointed.
If you want an authentic medieval Tuscan competition but don’t fancy battling the crowds in Siena’s palio, go to Montepulciano for the Bravìo delle Botti on the last Sunday in August. The eight contrade of Montepulciano compete for the Bravìo, a beautifully painted cloth banner by rolling barrels weighing 80 kilos in an uphill race for more than a kilometre. The barrels are rolled by two athletes called "spingitori" and the race winds through the streets of the town’s historical centre until it reaches the churchyard of the Duomo in Piazza Grande. The townspeople dress up in lavish medieval costumes and a number of important ceremonies take place on the morning of the race, while in the afternoon there is a procession to prepare the entrants for the event itself. The festival is also an excellent opportunity to sample some of the 'vino nobile' wine which comes from this area of Tuscany.
Take a day trip to Montalcino, a medieval walled town set high on a hill. Spend the morning wandering around its narrow streets and squares before going to sample the world famous Brunello wine. The most atmospheric place to do this is in the Enoteca La Fortezza, situated inside the 14th century fortress that dominates the skyline. The stone vaults are filled with excellent wines and you can also buy local prosciutto, salami and pecorino cheese. Glasses of Brunello start at about €4 and the friendly staff are happy to help if you need some advice on which wine to choose.
Last Autumn I spent two weeks in a beautiful part of Tuscany called "Val di Chiana", precisely near a village called Pozzo della Chiana, in the province of Arezzo, close to the border with Umbria.
I stayed at a place called Villa Scannagallo which was a beautiful country house divided into apartments, with an amazing garden, swimming pool, BBQ facilities and breathtaking view of the surrounding olive groves.
The owners are very welcoming and each apartment is beautifully furnished.
Situated 30 kilometres from Arezzo, it is also within easy reach of Siena (60 kilometres), and close to San Gimignano, Lake Trasimeno, Monte San Savino, Cortona, Montepulciano, Montalcino, Pienza and other lovely medieval villages of the Val di Chiana, and only 85 km away from Florence.
It is not far from a couple of major shopping outlets as well: www.themall.it and www.valdichianaoutlet.it. There are numerous local restaurants to be recommended and places where to buy the local products such as olive oil, wines (Rosso di Montepulciano and Vin Santo), pecorino cheese, honey, cantuccini biscuits, salami, pork sausages and T-bone steaks, as well as the delicious Tuscan bread.
I highly recommend it to anybody: families, couples, group of friends ...
The vast majority of the Tuscany region in July gives itself over to free music festivals in either street or theatre and usually from early evening into the early hours. I can recommend Siena as the best location with Feste della Musicale (13 to 17 July) and Siena music week (9 to 16 July ) being the most popular with fantastic ranges of music from Jazz, lyrical, alternative, soul, pop, electronic and visual art to operatic, classical and all things Italian (this is Puccini and Mascagni territory.) A popular thing at most outdoor venues is free mineral water.
Although hotels (albergos) can be expensive look for small family run trattorias - many do bed/breakfast at reasonable rates. The stunning city piazza (square) is a wonder to behold lots of other attractions including lots of Renaissance history, quieter nearby rural locations, the wine regions of San Gimignano and Poggibonsi and above all friendly welcoming people, great food and weather. You can find lots to do all week and everyday is a new adventure. Do not miss it - I wont.
A Tuscan town surrounded by a 16th century wall which is now a tree lined avenue on the walls' ramparts. 4km long, flat, safe and perfect for walking or cycling - loads of cycle rental businesses next to the walls, hiring cycles for all ages. We rented bikes for two adults and two kids (about 20 Euro all in, with free use of helmets) for a couple of hours and whizzed around the walls and town (even in the heat of August this was comfortable.) There are cafes and plenty of picnic spots along the route, as well as a handful of children's parks where the grown-ups can rest while the kids burn off more energy. The town itself offers the usual Tuscan narrow streets to enjoy cafe life, shopping or simply exploring on foot or bike. To really wear the kids out, take them up the Torre Guinigi - the tower with ancient oaks on top. It's 230 steps, much cheaper than the Tower of Pisa and our four and seven-year-olds loved it.
Torre Guinigi, Via Sant'Andrea, 45 55100 Lucca, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/iHykHm
Adults Euro 3.50, children 2.50
This amazing sculpture garden in a wonderful Tuscan landscape has such a range of sculptures, some are funny, some are deeply moving, and all are interesting. There is also an interesting small restaurant, with really nice food including a set menu of the day. They loan out big white umbrellas on rainy days, which added to the enjoyment. Oh and there are domestic pigs by the car park which we also enjoyed ...
LaVialla is a beautiful organic farm estate about 8km north of Arezzo on the SP56, well sign-posted from the village of Castiglion Fibocchi. You can visit the estate and stroll along its paths in the woods, enjoying the most spectacular views. If the weather is fine (and it usually is!) you can enjoy a delicious lunch of cheeses, home made bread, salads and salami; all organically produced on the farm with LaVialla wines at incredibly good prices. All the produce is on sale at the "little shop" and accommodation is provided in converted farm buildings.
Frui are a UK based, young and enthusiastic holiday company that cater for those that don't want to worry about the logistics of the holiday but would rather enjoy their holiday and concentrate on whichever of their creative offers you have selected. (Frui do photography, cooking and painting).
This was the first time I had travelled with them and I wasn't disappointed - excellent but appropriate tuition (not too in your face), beautiful food and wine and a carefully put together itinerary, led to a fantastic 4.5 day holiday.
I came back more confident and with a new found hunger for photography. So much so I am in the process of booking again.
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