Mamma Mia!

Somehow, without planning it this way, I have a near-constant stream of amici e famiglia coming to join me for a slice of the action until the end of September. This has both its advantages and disadvantages. Pros: I can be my true weird self and I know that I won’t be judged (they have already accepted me into their lives and PAID to have the pleasure of spending time with me); I will be wholeheartedly congratulated on the progress of my tan, rather than asked (by those who are unfamiliar with my milky complexion) if I am averse to exposing any skin to the sun as I am “really rather pale”; I can experience a luxurious style of travel which can only be achieved through an injection to the accommodation budget – privacy, cleanliness and some ruddy air conditioning (or at least an electric fan). Cons: I can no longer pretend I am a successful travel writer / degree holder / Parisian (the latter perhaps more in my dreams) or any other profession / nationality of choice when introducing myself to new people; I now have competition when it comes to seducing the handsome Italian waiter / French linguist / Dutch engineer…; I have a constant companion with whom to blow my already stretched budget on delicious food, wine, aperitivo… (and get treated to the odd glass of prosecco because they feel sorry for me in my crumpled clothes and bulging backpack). It’s a hard life. But someone’s gotta do it.

First on the guest list was the one and only Moo Moo. Hooray! Finally someone to do the sun cream on my back! We met at the confusingly named Hotel Bologna in the centre of – Pisa. (I thought the same.) I arrived first (I was determined to utilise every possible minute I could in hotel accommodation) and entered the lobby slightly nervous that they would catch sight of this make-up-free, bite- and bruise-covered, backpack-laden globetrotter and dial direct for the Italian authorities to pack me up and take me back to more appropriate lodgings. But somehow with my eyelashes on their best fluttering duty and my charm at its most Italian (and my mother’s credit card) I was able to gain entry into this other worldly haven of marble flooring, double beds and, no – it couldn’t be, COMPLIMENTARY SLIPPERS!!! As soon as the door closed behind me the Nike’s were off and the pantefole were on, the king sized bed was well and truly launched upon, and I took a series of shameless selfies posing alongside the Hotel Bologna branded pillows to send to Moo Moo who was en route from the airport. Ah. This was the life.

Half an hour later (just enough time to complete that day’s French homework (I’m learning the language, mon ami)) the hotel room door creaked open and a lovely little lady came peaking through the opening. It’s the maid with complimetary chocolates! I hear you all say. Mais non! It was of course ma mère, ma missing monopoly piece (figuratively speaking (she’s not a recently retired iron)), ma multi bueno mumchkin, ma magnifico Moo Moo. The reunion hug was just like the best traditional Italian pasta – warming, comforting and oozing with goodness, leaving a satisfied glow on the inside which lingered for hours after the main event. Of course there has never been a better reason to have a glass of prosecco than the reunification of mother and daughter, so off into Pisa we went, in search of a glass of bubbly. The rest of the afternoon consisted of catching up on all the latest breaking news from the UK: the last three months’ ups and downs of the Parish Council; the state of the flowers on the patio (and the state of the patio itself for that matter); and, most importantly, the current mental state of my most treasured possession: Bimbo – the best teddy bear of all time. (He is suffering from separation anxiety (as expected) but doing well all things considered.)

After one full day exploring Pisa, taking comically badly lined up Leaning Tower photos and generally just trying to prevent mother dearest from keeling over from the heat (a vast contrast to the murky midlands), we got an early night and set off the following morning for stop two: Florence. Getting the train was an interesting experience. If you think finding the platform, boarding the train, stowing your luggage and obtaining a decent seat was hard with an 18 kg backpack imagine doing it with an 18 kg backpack, a 15 kg wheely suitcase and a 65-year-old mother… Getting all three into the overhead compartment was a nightmare! But we made it there in one piece and, after nearly throttling each other while trying to find the hotel, we arrived, and – my God – had we ARRIVED. The hotel room turned out to be a hotel suite. My mother turned out to be the bloody Madonna. Along with the maxi king sized bed there was the seating area (a sofa EACH); a bathroom with shower AND BATH; and a complimentary bottle of the nicest chianti I have ever tasted. I’d give it a six out of ten for facilities. And then there were the breakfasts. Mamma Mia. I had the same combo every morning, I fell in love with mini frittatas a little more everyday, and I now know what I will provide for breakfast for every guest I ever house ever again when I am back to real life and back to the kitchen. I won’t reveal the full bonanza as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but, friends, you are in for an eggcellent treat.

Our time in Florence was spent eating, drinking and doing lots of walking – pretty much my standard everyday life as I now know it. We even had a houmous, bread and cheese (and chianti) picnic in the suite (😉) to make me feel more at home. (In our complimentary dressing gowns, naturally.) We ticked off the Uffizi (lots of underwhelmingly endowed male sculptures), the Mercato Centrale (delicious octopus salad and even more delicious prosecco) and climbing up a hill to watch the sun set over the River Arno (a near mother faintality situation, but nonetheless a must do in any city).

Third and final stop was Stresa, a lovely little holiday town on Lake Maggiore. It had a definite air of older generation about it. The hotel was like something out of a film from a previous century. The entrance lounge was a meadow of a dozen different pink and red hues of floral apolstery, including on the walls, with the biggest chandelier you’ve ever seen hanging grandly from the ceiling like an upside down cake of cascading champagne classes (luckily no drips). I did consider hiding during check in to avoid embarrassment on my mother’s part but, once more, her credit card afforded me a temporary new identity of landed gentry with a penchant for all things kitsch.

Relaxation was the purpose and itinerary of this section of our Northern Italian mini tour, and boy did we do it well. I don’t think we veered off course for more than four minutes per day (and one has to brush their teeth, darling). The pool and garden area were as perfectly manicured as the nails of Amy Childs’ vajazzlist, with a sunny yellow theme to the towels, umbrellas and bar cushions which went fabulously with my floral yellow bikini. A solid two days were spent lounging, bathing, dipping and sipping. Aperitivo was a never-missed mealtime, during which I introduced Moo Moo to the Dolomitean-born (apparently) Hugo Spritz – my first successful convert to my favourite holiday tipple. The hotel also housed a spa and wellness centre which was unexpectedly about two decades ahead of the rest of the complex in terms of design, providing an additional escape for us when soaking up the Piedmontese sun became a little too much. I am a self-confessed spa snob and this one was pretty high up there. The lounge beds were sleep inducing, the lighting ambient, and the pool just big enough to do lengths, but not so big as to disturb the perfectly placid pulse rate. When you had completed your vigorous five lengths you could sneak around the corner to find a secret cave housing a delicate jacuzzi (none of this water in every facial orifice malarkey) in which to sink away into a deep state of gently bubbling calm. Experiencing this level of almost-meditative relaxation is what I love most about #SpaLife, and mother and I certainly achieved our quota of Vitamin R here, that is until we heard / felt a large splash from the pool and I received the following WhatsApp from the lounge bed to my right: Stop press! “Large guest causes tsunami at 4* hotel in Stresa by jumping into the pool” 😂. Oh mum. I do love you.

And before you chastise us for our utterly self indulgent three days, we also partook in a boat outing – yes a BOAT outing (for those of you who know Babsy babe) – to visit three of the nearby little islands on the extensive Lake Maggiore. They were all very beautiful and got progressively more interesting which made for the perfect three-stop tour. On Isola Madre we pootled; on Isola Superiore we pootled, had a drink, pootled, had some lunch; and on Isola Bella we explored (too strenuous to be defined as a pootle) the island’s magnificent palatial house and even more magnificent gardens, had a drink, and had a second near mother faintality situation.

Our last evening together was slightly scuppered by one of Stresa’s infamous storms (mum had been looking forward to one all week) so, like all good adventurous holiday goers with one last chance to explore the town, we decided to have nice long baths, get into our robes and order room service for dinner. Delicious. We parted ways the next day at Milano Centrale, and I felt like a proud mother waving off her child who was travelling abroad alone for the first time as she boarded the train to the airport. With mother, and mother’s credit card, now gone, it was back to the budget life for me. Grazie mille, mumma mia!

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Five Guys

All the best things in life come in sets of five*: the Spice Girls; the number of days each week during which you can countdown to the weekend; golden rings. And the five villages making up the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre are certainly no exception. In fact, even better than the brightly coloured bric-a-brac towns themselves are the spectacular hiking trails which take you from one coastal haven to the next.

Staying just outside the five official chosen ones (I’m on a budget, darling) in La Spezia, I visited the nearest of the quintet on my first afternoon – the picture-perfect Riomaggiore – before (bravely or foolishly) attempting the remaining four, adjoining hikes included, the following (very hot (31°)) day. After an initially frustrating start to the morning (requesting laundry be done by the most away-with-the-fairies hostel volunteer I had ever come into contact with (who turned out to be the manager (I was flabbergasted to say the least)), followed by said manager attempting to help me (loosely used) pre-book my ‘Cinque Terre travel card’ online (categorically unsuccessful), I headed to the train station – much more willing to stand in line to buy my ticket in person over dying a little bit more inside with every confused nonsensical noise which escaped from the hostel manager’s cake hole. (Rant over.)

I bought my ticket (allowing for train travel between each of the villages (if I got lazy) and entry on foot to two of the payable national parks through which the last two hikes ran (if I didn’t)), boarded the train and set off for numero due dei cinque: Manarola. And – man-alive-a – it was beautiful. As in Riomaggiore, the jaunty, pastel-coloured, lego-like houses sat sweetly along the dramatic and menacingly jagged charcoal grey cliff side, with the luminous turquoise sea glistening cheekily at its feet. My reward, if I completed the four-stop hike, was a swim at the last resort, so I resisted the temptation of a quick dip and got on my way to the start of the first inter-village hike. It started on a somewhat uphill leg, and as I completed the first few hundred metres (of twenty nine thousand) with my clothes already sodden, my cap positively stuck to my head, my panting akin to an overweight Elmo on a treadmill for the very first time, and my water bottle at near depletion, I doubted my chances of a successful completion of the self-set task (doubting also whether I would indeed make it to the next village alive). But then I saw Manarola from above and realised: I was totally going to smash this. The views were breathtaking (literally – the pants were audible), and, once I had decided I was definitely going to complete the feat, my newest worry was making sure I stopped to take in the scenery instead of moving and musing simultaneously (which is never a good combination for me). (Visions of newspaper headlines echoing ‘Girl Prone to Accidental Damage Not Paying Attention to Feet Trips and Falls to Dramatic Death Between Village Three and Four of the Italian Cinque Terre’ did enter my thoughts on more than one occasion.)

Arriving at the third village – Corniglia – in one (rather sweaty) piece (imagine a cone of melting strawberry gelato and you’ve near enough got it) I headed boldly down about 673 steps, along a path about one hundred miles long in search of the secluded swimming spot (which would most definitely make a ruddy good photo). Was it at the end of this twenty-five-minute sortie? Of course not. I don’t believe anything ever touched by mankind was at the end of that trail. So back I went, and up (UP 😭) I went, to find the lovely little town, and secluded little swimming spot, just a three-minute sortie from the starting point. (It wasn’t a mistake. It was a learning experience.) Consoling myself with the now warm apple I had stolen from the breakfast buffet, I had a wander, got my snaps and got back on the road, headed to the fourth wonder of this magical coastline.

Vernazza (quattro dei cinque) was going to be my lunch stop so, naturally, I picked up pace and had a renewed determination with the thought of eating food in the back (front) of my mind (one of my three favourite hobbies along with cooking and restaurant research). 🐷. Another beautiful hike was had and I made my way into the main thoroughfare in search of a suitable place to eat (you know me). I settled on a lovely little café / restaurant cum wine bar. Caprese salad and small beer plus complimentary crisps and bread consumed (nothing better than a complimentary nibble (or two)) I was rejuvenated, replete and a touch on the tipsy side – the perfect state in which to commence the day’s final hike. 

I navigated the last stretch in record time (undoubtedly the easiest climb – thank the lord) and made it to Monterosso al Mare – CINQUE DEI CINQUE – just shy of 7 pm. I did it!!! And I was bloody well going to have my swim. I bought a towel / blanket situation from one of the tourist shops, found a shady corner, and did a highly embarrassing Mr Bean-esque change from my sportswear into my swimwear. (I think one or two passers by may have caught a glimpse of a buttock (or two), but hopefully they were in good shape from all the uphill action.) Bikini on, bystanders bemused and BO at its best (disgusting but true) I immersed myself in the Ligurian Sea (never heard of it either) and floated away into a hazy dreamlike state of elation and exhaustion. There was only one thing for it: pistachio gelato. I got my cup (with half a scoop of peach (much regretted)) and walked to the station to catch the evening train back to La Spezia.

One of the most strenuous, sweatiest and sublime days of my 6 months so far. High five to that.

*They don’t. It was very tricky to even think of three examples. Any better suggestions very welcome.

Mezzogiorno

Mezzogiorno, for those of you who don’t know (I didn’t – I’m not judging), is the Italian term for Southern Italy (which I was drawn to for its resemblance to melanzane (and we all know how much I like aubergine)). The first part of my Italian itinerary was exploring this area; heading south through Puglia and then up and across to Campania to visit the marmite city of Naples. I’m thrilled to confirm I bloody loved it.

First stop was Puglia’s capital, Bari, selected unashamedly not for any of its merits but for its airport into which I flew from Romania. As I got into the city it was hot, there were palm trees and it was full of Italian accents – I was a happy girl. After a run, a Greek salad for lunch (oh the irony) and a costume change I headed into the Old Town which, as Bari (and probably the whole of Mezzogiorno) has a 1 – 5 pm siesta, was pretty dead. I wandered along the sea-facing wall of the Old Town, excited to finally be at the actual sea (as opposed to a lake (man-made: Berlin; natural: Bled); a dirty river (Serbia); or the mother of all ice baths (Vintnar Gorge)). As I made my way to Bari’s small, and somewhat underwhelming, beach I spied police tapes blocking off the sea from the sand. Hmm. At least I could still smell the sea air. (It transpires that after heavy rainfall the sea at Bari gets very dirty due to a bad sewerage system – delightful.) I set up shop none the less and began my first – real beach!!! – sunbathing session of my trip. I hadn’t been lounging for long before it became blazingly apparent just how forward Italian men are… I was lying on my front, minding my own business, working on the back tan. But of course one wants to keep their achingly slow-to-develop sun-kissed glow even on both sides. So over I turn, to be greeted by the outstretched arm and ready-to-shake hand of a comically typical, and a little cringeworthy, Italian male. Swimming shorts? Short. Body hair? Clearly a keen shaver (legs included). Confidence? Overflowing. This prickly, tanned, almost nude creature was Marco, a Bari born and bred Italian who had a penchant for Russian girls (I think it was the blonde hair) and a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) socially accepted norms surrounding the personal space of strangers in public. That said, he was a great font of information on Bari and the surrounding area (every cloud). With my milky white skin now 0.5% less creamy, my stomach rumbling and my local knowledge topped up sufficiently, I headed back to my hostel to cook dinner (brown rice with prawns (that turned out to be crayfish (I think)), veggies and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts: yum).

As recommended by Marco, the hostel staff, and indeed any other individual who has ever been in the vicinity, I went on a jolly day trip to nearby town Polignano a Mare. The Old Town reminded me of a small version of Mykonos (just cream rather than white). It consisted of a rabbit warren of narrow winding streets in which to get wonderfully lost, and snack on delicious pistachio gelato. (I don’t believe there is a location unsuitable in which to snack on pistachio gelato, but this sure was an idyllic one.) The town’s biggest draw was its teeny tiny rocky cove which was packed – almost entirely – with brightly coloured towels laid out on the rocks, umbrellas poking out at jaunty angles and a spectrum of cream to caramel to chocolate to red velvet skinned bathers placed like candy crush pieces on every bit of available land. I found a free spot (all ten centimetres squared of it), dumped my stuff, de-clothed (bikini already in place (it wasn’t that kind of beach)) and headed straight to the glisteningly clear turquoise water. I say ‘headed straight to’… more accurately I ambled unsteadily in my flip flops across the rocks – and sunbathers – trying vehemently not to fall over, injure myself, or grab hold of anyone’s body parts in the unfortunate event of either of the former two coming to frightful fruition. Thankfully I made it to the water with no cuts, no bruises and no groping allegations (albeit a handful of near misses). The rocks continued once in the water – not most appreciated by my flip flop-less feet (OUCH), but once I was far enough out that I couldn’t touch the bottom I was in paradise.

Next pin on the map was Lecce, a university town not so different to Bari. It was here that the heat went from holi-yay to holy fucking shit (so the delicious gelato (dark chocolate with orange – my new second favourite flavour) was very much a necessity rather than an indulgence (ahem)). During my time in Lecce I met the cutest of poodles – two-year-old Mickey (as featured on Facebook) – in a traditional papier-mâché trinkets shop. I was much more interested in stroking the dog than eyeing up the handmade goods, and I think the owner (doddery old Italian man with very little, if any, English) rather took a shine to me, that is before I almost destroyed his entire window display (and my dignity). As I positioned myself to capture Mickey at his best angle (envisage legs squat, arse out, mouth open with utmost concentration on my subject) I backed into what I feared at first to be multiple shelves of the craftsman’s precious, delicate goods. In this split second I had visions of glass shattering, shelves caving, hundreds of euros demanded on the spot for damages. Thankfully I had just backed into the shop door! But even so, with my pugshot captured I swiftly left the shop with a red face and sweaty palms (both of which had nothing to do with the weather), at which point I indulged – I mean recouperated – with the decadently rich gelato with its luscious citrus hint.

My final stop in the lower half of Italia was the opinion-splitting, pizza-inventing, traffic law-disobeying, Unesco World Heritage Site of Napoli. And – oh my – what a city. The traffic is crazy busy with cars, taxis and vespers galore taking no prisoners when it comes to getting to their destination in the quickest time possible. You have to walk out boldly into the constant stream of traffic if you want to get across the road at an point (anyone timid would struggle to move more than five metres), but, surprisingly, I never felt like I would be hit; the drivers are clearly insane, but very much on the ball. And given it’s probably the street theft capital of the country, I luckily did not once feel unsafe or at risk of being mugged / kidnapped / raped – which is always a plus. 

And as for the pizza… The mother of all pizza. The pizza before pizza became a thing. The magnificent, heroic, simplicity-at-its-best, humble, handmade, wholly-loved – and loved to be eaten whole – Pizza Margherita. Well. Prepare to feast your hungry ears. Napoli, home to this game-changing delicacy, has, unsurprisingly, no shortage of pizzerias claiming to serve the best Pizza Margherita of all time. So I had some investigating to do. If I were to follow the advice of a fellow traveller in my dorm room, my station-to-hostel taxi driver, and Julia Roberts* herself, I would head to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, (apparently) much hyped as ‘the best pizza in the world’ and featured in the American rom-com Eat Pray Love (I’ve never seen the film but still a claim to fame, right?). And so that’s exactly what I did. Luckily enough I met a fellow solo traveller on that morning’s walking tour, so I was able to enjoy the gigantic carb cookie with company (and also learn a great deal about the American fraternity / sorority system – equally fascinating and bizarre). Arriving at the pizzeria to a crowd of hungry tourists and locals waiting for their turn to be seated, we collected our ticket, bought a couple of beers, sat on the sidewalk (😉) and waited for our number to be called. After not too long a wait we got called, we were seated, and the mouth started a watering. The menu had the following options: Pizza Margherita (normale / media / doppia mozzarella) / Pizza Marinara (normale / media / maxi). Obviously we were both going to get Margherita (need that even be a question?): normale pour moi and doppia mozzarella for him. They came. They were beautiful. They were photographed. They were demolished. Perfectly textured dough (not thin and crispy but not thick either), perfectly oozy toppings, and a perfect Italian palette (basil-mozzarella-tomato). Perfection itself. (From now on and forever more I am going to be the snob of all pizza snobs: I apologise in advance.)

To continue the food talk (why change the habit of a lifetime?), along with the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (not an exaggeration) I also enjoyed – on the same ruddy day – the best gelato I have ever tasted too. (Apologies again if I return to the UK unable to fit through any doorways due to rapid Italian weight gain.) Made from buffalo milk, it was the creamiest ice cream, like, ever, and the pistachio really didn’t disappoint. (Mennella for anyone in the region.)

With my extra baggage well and truly secure (an additional wobbly layer just under my skin), I left the chaotically cool Napoli for the country’s romantic capital, Roma. At least the abundance of arduous sightseeing ahead might go some way to reverse the Napolean naughtiness (I can always live in hope).

*For this whole time I thought it was Sarah Jessica Parker that starred in Eat Pray Love, who’s photo was hung proudly in L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, and who’s wise tastebuds I was paying homage to. Lol.