Travel Under the Sardinian Sun

It’s no secret that I’m proud of my Italian heritage, but what I’m not so proud of is the fact that despite this, I’ve only been to Italy twice in my life. To be fair, I get a taste of grand old Italia every time I eat at my Nonna’s house (there’s nothing quite like Italian hospitality), and I’m not technically counting day trips to Rome and Florence (ah, the joys of cruise!). That said, I would love to see more of my maternal ‘homeland.’

Having been back in the drizzling cold weather I so lovingly associate with home for almost a week now, I’m really feeling the distance between me and the Sardinian sun. Not even the slight tan I acquired (no mean feat, considering I inherited my Dad’s Liverpudlian skin) can comfort me. I’ve actually taken to scrolling through photos of sunsets and beaches from our holiday; whoever said post-holiday blues were easy to cope with obviously never lived in Manchester.

But, anyway, here are a few tips from my family and I, should you ever find your lucky self in Sardinia…

Visit Stintino Beach: If ever there were a beach that looked exactly as it did in the brochure for Paradise, it was this one. With clear (and warm) blue waters and the softest sand I’ve ever seen, even the market traders carrying knock-off Louis Vuittons and blankets by the bar couldn’t stop me from recommending it. Oh, and be sure to order an “Isla Piana” sandwich for lunch (mozzarella, tomato, olive oil and oregano – you can thank me later).

img_2369img_2376img_2378

Take a trip to Castelsardo: Another beach in the Province of Sassari, Castelsardo offers a secluded bay experience, perfect for a quiet day catching rays. What’s more, the water is brilliant for snorkelling, and it’s only a short walk from the town, which boasts a colourful array of restaurants and bars.

img_2451img_2494img_2505

Dine at Il Merlo Indiano: The villa we were staying in was just a 10 minute walk outside of Valledoria, so we stumbled upon this gem of a Pizzaria on our way into the town. The staff were friendly and attentive, and the owner Rafaelle was particularly welcoming. Whilst our stay was only a week long, we ended up eating here three times. The pizza (which is produced in one of Sardina’s oldest wood-burning ovens) was exceptional and the variety of over 100 pizzas meant you were never short of choice. My personal recommendation would be to always go for Buffalo mozzarella and keep it simple (Il Gentile is lovely).

img_2032img_2120

Try a Latte Macchiato: I’ve never really been a big coffee fan, and would usually question the sanity of someone who suggested drinking it in the heat, let alone on a beach, however this frothy and revitalising drink became my firm favourite in Sardinia. The best one I tried was in the snack bar on San Pietro beach, Valledoria, but Café Pavone in Alghero also made a good one.

Scream for Ice Cream: If there’s one thing Italians are famous for (ok, maybe one of a multitude of things) it’s gelato. The most refreshing and delicious temptation Italy has to offer, there is no cafe worth its salt that doesn’t sell it. The best one I had was in Alghero, in a little ice-cream ‘cave’ called Gelateria i Bastioni. A little hint: you can’t go far wrong with Pistachio or Lemon.

dvfbgnh

Learn how to play Italian cards: One of my fondest childhood memories is of my Nonno teaching me and my siblings how to play with Italian cards. Growing up in a big family with a love of long mealtimes, card games have often formed the post-dinner entertainment that kept us children from climbing up the walls. The particular type we use are Napoletane, with the two main games being Scopa and Briscola. Easy to pick up and beautiful to look at, these cards will provide hours of fun and may even spark up a competitive streak! If you can read Italian and fancy learning, try here.

DSC02541.jpg

Prague: A new city for the new year…

I always find New Year is best spent at home and despite a serious bout of envy at a friend’s VIP Times Square experience, this year did not change that. However, I did break tradition slightly, with a somewhat impromptu trip to Prague, and was pleasantly surprised by the bohemian offering of beautiful buildings and winding rivers, as well as the somewhat kitsch, such as the John Lennon Pub (shown below).

img_0513img_0497

As tiresome as certain other tourists may be, I stand by the view that in a short break, a walking tour is the best route to making the most of your time and the Prague All Inclusive Tour fit the bill perfectly. The company offer small groups in a plethora of languages the opportunity to see 36 sights in just 6 hours. As crammed in as that may sound, it proved to be a fun and insightful day. Regardless of the questionable refreshments, a 40 minute boat trip was the cherry atop a wonderful tour.

img_0477img_0530img_0526

Full of nooks and crannies, the beauty of Prague – a surprisingly “European” city considering its Communist past – is in discovering the forgotten and overlooked squares and arcades; stumbling upon something even better than what you expected to find. It was in one such square that we found Cafē Pavlina, something of an artisan coffee shop, with a variety of hot drinks almost verging on the ridiculous.

img_0407.jpg

The Jewish Quarter is most certainly the place to be for anyone craving a high end experience of the Czech capital. In keeping with this, Italian restaurant Cantinetta Fiorentina proffers a warm and inviting atmosphere, offset by the authentic live music to which you can’t help but sway. You can normally judge the quality of a meal by the bread and this was no exception. The bread was warm and varied, the olive oil was rich and a shade of green so vivid my mouth was watering before I’d even tasted it. The only let-down was the price tag; you’ll struggle to find a main for less than £30 amongst the slightly limited menu. The lobster tagliatelle is strongly recommended, though.

For somewhere more humble, the New Town Brewery offers traditional Czech food at reasonable prices, all accompanied by their own brew, available in light or dark. Recommendations:

  • Mushroom soup in a bowl of bread
  • Beef goulash with traditional dumplings

Jo’s provides the perfect place to rest after meandering around the nearby shops; a welcome break from the shiny souvenir-filled streets of the Lesser Town. Where it lacks in size, it compensates in cocktails: happy hour is from 18:00-21:00. Coming out of Jo’s and turning right, you’ll find a neat selection of unique retailers, from a vintage shop to the cheap-as-chips Dárky Gifts, you’ll even find an Absintherie.

img_0715img_0716

Russian Dolls: Moscow & St Petersburg

You’re about to get bombarded with whatever little tidbits I remember from our wonderful tour guides Lena and -oddly enough- Lena, because the last six days (3 in Moscow and 3 in St Petersburg) definitely deserve a post.

img_2074.jpg

For many who lived through Soviet Russia- be it the end or the very beginning- going inside the country’s borders may seem an impossible image to conjure. For anyone too young to have experienced that fear-tinged awe, it feels like going back in time. Moscow is built on the remains of Tsarist grandeur, now punctuated by large open spaces, an initial brash injection of commercialism and the garish architecture of the 1980s.

It’s difficult to describe Moscow, other than a rather brilliant contradiction. It’s history is so varied and each era – from the Tsars to Stalin- has left its mark. Perhaps the best example of this is Red Square, injected with a flavour of Russian history from every era. The large open space is surrounded on one side by GUM (a grand shopping mall previously frequented by Soviet and Tsarist leaders alike), Lenin’s mausoleum (a modern take on the Egyptian pyramid- fitting, considering the chemical mummification of the leader himself that lies inside) and potentially the most distinctive feature of all: St Basil’s Cathedral. Imagine the opulence of a traditional Russian ballet brought to life- it looks like a castle plucked from a fairy tale.

img_2204img_2191

Places worth visiting:

  • I’m not a particularly religious person and I’m slightly ashamed to say that being at a mixed religion school has made me something of a cynic, but there was an awe-inspiring quality to Christ the Saviour Cathedral. It’s humbling to see the intricate icons painted so lovingly; the devotion is clear in each brush stroke. And this is not a Cathedral that has had an easy ride, either. In 1996 it had to be rebuilt, an exact replica of the original costing 650 million Roubles- all of which was raised by the people of Moscow.
  • Moo Moo on Arbat Street provides a homely respite from shopping in the Russian cold as well as authentic cuisine- a great place to try Bhorsh!
  • The armoury holds Russia’s prize possessions; the treasures of its heritage- from Faberge eggs to thrones and carriages.

And then there was St Petersburg…

Intrinsically more modern than Moscow; when it was founded by Peter the Great, he used it when introducing his new reforms as an example to other cities across Russia. The difference is clear to see. St Petersburg comes across as surprisingly European- pastel washed palaces and rows upon rows of town houses, though like Moscow, most people live in apartments. All of this runs alongside the river and is accented by monuments at every corner; a not-so-subtle tribute to the city’s past. Often called the Venice of the north, St Petersburg is formed from 500 bridges across 42 Islands. In short, it’s very beautiful.

img_2607

Places worth visiting:

  • The Peter and Paul Fortress
  • Perhaps Russia’s most infamous- and slightly mythological- man, Grigory Rasputin has become eponymous with the scene of his murder, the Yusopov Palace; though the house is more than worthy of a visit in its own right. To be honest, any mansion that comes with it’s own theatre and concert hall (in which we had a private musical performance during our tour) is a must-visit and as Tsarist Russia’s second wealthiest family after the Royals, the Yusopovs’ former residence is a prime example of pre-revolution extravagance.
  • Despite it not being a regular feature on most St Petersburg bucket lists, be sure to catch a folklore show should you ever be in Russia. We saw one at the Nickolayevsky palace and it was the surprise highlight of our trip; the dancers were so energetic and their pride in their dancing/singing was so evident, you couldn’t help but smile and cheer along.
  • And if your tour is just a one-stop wonder, why not pay a visit to the Hermitage museum to see a collection of Russia’s finest all in one place? Probably best not to attempt seeing everything, though- viewing each item for at least 15 seconds would take a whole 7 years out of your life.
  • If, like me, your trip is split between these two cities, try taking the night train from Moscow to St Petersburg- definitely an experience if nothing else.
  • The Amber room in the Catherine palace has been honoured as the 8th wonder of the world and whilst plenty of photos may be available online, you really need to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it’s beauty.

img_2450.jpg

To eat:

  • Bhorsh soup
  • Pierogi
  • Stroganoff at the Stroganoff Palace (St Petersburg about £50 a pot)
  • Traditional Russian dumplings
  • Bellini pancakes with caviar

Tips:

  • Most public attractions and museums will not allow entry if you are carrying a backpack (however a bag held on any other body part is fine)
  • There are metal detectors everywhere- even bowling alleys insist on security. Don’t be put off by this though, most checks are not too rigorous.
  • Unless you’re native to Russia and are used to it, don’t drink the tap water- it comes with the risk of Giardia.
  • It’s advisable to always carry ID; a photocopy of your passport will do.
  • Whilst having a tour guide gives you the best of Russia in just a short period of time, it doesn’t offer the chance to truly immerse yourself in Russian culture. Perhaps my view is shaded slightly by the presence of Moscow Fashion Week during my stay- and my distinct lack of presence at the event.

img_2179.jpg

Anglesey: The best beaches and the top pub lunches

As a small island, Anglesey has the unique offering of short car journeys: you can reach most parts of it within half an hour. And with nothing further than a stone’s throw away, you have the ability to visit the many bays and villages it provides. Here are a few reccomendations:

  • The White Eagle Pub: pub grub with a gastro twist and a cute story to go with it! Timpsons’ owner, Mr Timpson (you never would’ve guessed that one) bought his local pub to save it and gave it a 21st century spin. From the lush lawn adored with deckchairs and space hoppers, to the fine food (I recommend the spicy lamb burger, but you really can’t leave without trying the chips), it’s definitely worth popping in for some lunch.
  • Trearddur Bay: my favourite bay on Anglesey and one I remember visiting when I was younger. You have to go round the bay to find the best beach, but once you get there, be sure to soak up some rays alongside the watersports fanatics that regularly flock there.
  • Newborough Warren Nature Reserve: it may not sound like the most fascinating beach of the bunch, but nestled between the red squirrel reserve and the forest fumbles lies a pretty lovely beach. And not to worry, whilst you wouldn’t be short of bushes, there are proper toilet facilities, making the Warren somewhere you could happily spend your days. Plus, you may even spot Kate and Wills taking Prince George for a seaside stroll.

img_1711img_1863img_1870img_1865

When in Crete: Sun, sea and lots of food!

So, I’m back from my holiday. To be honest, I can’t tell you whether that is a good thing or not. Whilst I appreciate that holidays can’t last forever, I really wish that wasn’t true. Time has a funny way of passing during a holiday. The days go by slowly and I always find myself being lulled into a deceptive state of relaxation in which I am oblivious to time itself; the only structure coming from the big old light in the sky. And yet, I woke up on my penultimate day and came to the unexpected realisation that the serenity had an expiration date.

I always find it difficult to summarise a holiday: when asked “how was it?” my response can never seem to do the experience justice. So, instead of hopelessly trying to form a better answer, I’ve put together a mini bucket list of things to do in Crete- a sort of review, if you like, of all the things I did and the places I saw that stuck in my mind. I have to warn you, it’s not a quick read…

  • Kanali restaurant: There really could be no better way to kickstart this list, because nothing else quite manages to capture Crete so neatly in it’s essence. Little more than a small shack perched on the edge of a rather isolated bay off the coast of Elounda, Kanali incorporates good food (fish is their speciality), beautiful views (nowhere else that I’ve visited have I seen such a clear, almost glass-like sea) and the classic Greek hospitality.
  • Taverna Giorgos-Giovanni: Situated in the small village of Plaka, this Taverna has been visited by the likes of Lady Gaga and Rio Ferdinand and lives up to it’s local reputation for a great atmosphere and even greater food. Beware though, it’s always rammed full of people, so book ahead. The owner’s brother also has a restaurant in Elounda (Megaro) , which is equally as delicious and not as busy.
  • Spinalonga: From a distance, this small island may go unnoticed, but the story behind it’s relevance to Crete is hard to ignore. Once Greece’s main leper colony, the Venetian fortress is now visited by boatloads of tourists everyday. If you’re planning a visit, give ‘The Island’ by Victoria Hislop a whirl first; the book tells the story of the island in a heart-warming way and is based on the true tales of those who lived there.
  • The Green Shop: Just one of many unique shops in Plaka, every item is green, blue of turquoise (or one of the multiple shades in between). They sell beautiful pottery (handmade in Crete) nestled between scarves and jewellery.
  • Jeep Safari Crete: Providing inside knowledge on the Cretan landscape during a tour which led us from tree-climbing goats (yes, really) to and eco-village selling Pythagoras cups (it took me a while to figure them out), the drivers are good-humoured and insightful, which made for a great day out. There were plenty of stops for freshly squeezed orange juice along the way, even one at the birthplace of Zeus. A fun fact from our driver, Andreas: the best honey is made with thyme.
  • Porto Elounda Golf Resort: There are plenty of hotels to choose from on Crete, but this is the one we chose. The rooms were spacious, the staff were friendly and the beach was but a buggy ride away. For me, what set it apart was the multitude of restaurants, from the sea-surrounded Koh to Odysseus tavern, all serving wonderful food. Not only that, but the resort is home to the Six Senses Spa, voted one of the best in the world. As I’m sure is true of most beaches on Crete, the sand was soft and white, the sea warm and clear and there wasn’t a pebble in sight.

image1image2image8image10