Live like a local in Sala Comacina

A few weeks ago Mr TBST and I headed to the pretty, sleepy village of Sala Comacina on the edge of Lake Como. We’ve been crazy busy since our honeymoon, and it was finally time to rejuvenate in one of my favourite places in the whole world – Italy. Each region and city is different from the last, but will greet you like an old friend you can’t wait to join for chilled wine on a beautiful terrace. This year I wanted to explore somewhere new, and if it’s good enough for Mr Clooney…

We found our perfect hide-away on Air bnb – Suite Regina in Sala Comacina offers guests a floor to themselves; a large bedroom with balcony overlooking the lake and a fridge complete with bubbly and bottled water, and a huge bathroom with claw-foot tub and waterfall shower. Hello serenity!

To reach Sala Comacina, we flew into Milan, took the airport express train as far as Saronno, then hopped onto a regional train to Como itself. From there, Sala Comacina is a C10 bus ride away. This post-flight trio took us about 2 and a half hours, but was super easy and the bus tracks the edge of Lake Como, so it’s a very special introduction to the region.

On arrival, our lovely host Wendy gave us a tour of the village’s bars and restaurants, some of which get booked-up for dinner several days in advance, so I’d recommend planning and pre-booking if possible. One of my favourites was the Lido Di Sala Comacina, where you can dine al fresco from a simple but delicious home-cooked menu, with a gorgeous house wine. Locals in every bar and café in the village greeted us with “ciao” and a nod when we walked in, giving us that cosy feeling of familiarity, and plenty of opportunities to try out our Italian lingo (and gesture wildly while speaking loudly in English).

The Italian lake-side streets are incredibly narrow and parking in the villages is limited, so trains, buses, lake ferries and water taxis are the best way to get around, and make it very easy to explore further afield. A ferry-journey away, the “Pearl of the Lake” town of Bellagio offers a panoramic view of the Lake, and its narrow, cobbled streets are full of boutiques, wine bars and tucked-away roof terraces. Isola Comacina is the only island on Lake Como, and its historic ruins, picnicking spots, and viewpoints make it worth a visit. The island can be reached by water taxi from Sala Comacina, or by lake ferry from many of the other towns. Tip: Take your own refreshments onto the island, 2 cans of soft drink and 2 small ice creams cost us almost £20.

Lake Como is naturally and unapologetically romantic, with the kind of distracting beauty that grabs your attention and won’t release it. Waking up beside the Lake and eating fresh pastries on the balcony feels like pure indulgence, but budget airlines and self-catering accommodation make Italy a great, flexible option for couples on a budget, and whether you visit for 3 days or 3 weeks you’ll take something indefinable away with you.  I would visit again tomorrow, and the next day, and for the rest of my life.

Ciao!

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Above: Beautiful architecture in Sala Comacina

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Above: Bellagio

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Above: Sala Comacina village, as seen from the lake

 

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Vegetarian New Zealand (Part 2)

A few more meat-free choices from the South Pacific…

The Camel Grill (Wellington)

On the waterfront, at the arty heart of this ultra-trendy city, you’ll find a fast-food van and pure joy. Recently named “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet, you can’t move for aviator-sporting, granola-munching hipsters and freshly ground coffee in Wellington. But if you fancy something naughtier, and you like your falafel moist (and lets face it what lunatic doesn’t?), seek and you shall find The Camel Grill.

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Hubby loving life at The Camel Grill

The Village Café (Martinborough)

This place is exactly what it says on the tin…and then some. Homemade gnocchi, freshly baked bread, perfect Martinborough sauvignon blanc, all served by fresh-faced locals who are happy to share their recommendations and tweak dishes as needed. Martinborough itself is a wine village about an hour’s drive from Wellington, and a little off the usual tourist track. A plethora of boutique vineyards, olive groves, and wide country roads make this a perfect cycling spot – check out Green Jersey cycling tours and bike hire.

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Cycling through Martinborough’s olive groves and vineyards

Indigo (Napier)

This Indian restaurant, an anachronism housed in Napier’s beautiful art deco architecture, is a real find. Average from outside, but brilliant Trip Advisor reviews overruled my first impressions, and I’m so happy we ate here! The vegetable manchurian is a welcome change from the usual vegetable curries, and a dhal tadka washed down with a beer is the perfect end to a day of wandering.

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The famous Daily Telegraph building in Napier

PS I choose a meat-free diet but I’m not super-strict, so I didn’t check with the restaurants whether every ingredient in their vegetarian options was strictly vegetarian. I hope this blog post will help both vegetarians and others who make meat-free choices without having strict objections to ingredients derived from animals. Freedom of choice… no judgement here!

Copenhagen – The perfect city break?

When my suitcase split at the airport, and I realised I’d forgotten to pack a few city break essentials (who needs a coat in Scandinavia anyway!), I wondered what lay ahead. Happily, prosecco and G&Ts came to the rescue, and I discovered Copenhagen is freakin’ awesome! So I’d like to put forward my case for Copenhagen as the perfect city break for Brits…

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Above: Nyhavn.

Firstly, the flight time is just 2 hours, and Copenhagen airport is a 10 minute train journey from Copenhagen’s central station. So travel time won’t eat into your cheeky weekend away – win! Public transport in Copenhagen is super-efficient, there are plenty of S Train stations, and the metro is being expanded to make travel even easier – although one guide explained that natives of Copenhagen expect it to be completed in “year haha”.

Secondly, Copenhagen is a haven for foodies – even fussy vegetarians. When the concierge explained we were staying in the ‘Meatpacking District’, I worried I’d be living on vending machine fodder, but once again Copenhagen came up trumps (of course!). I recommend Toro – contemporary tapas, uber-friendly staff, very accommodating for vegetarians, and you feel cooler just sitting in this place! It gets very busy, so it’s worth booking a table. And if you’re away for a romantic break, check out the brilliant Je T’aime. Rustic French-inspired cooking, candle-lit tables and yummy new world wines.

Andersen Bakery (FYI Trip Advisor’s top-rated bakery in Copenhagen) and it’s melt-in-the-mouth pastries can be found opposite the train station – Three visits in four days… they must be doing something right! But it’s not just pastries… From the marshmallow *sounds like* ‘flooble’ on my scrummy Danish ice-cream, to the Tuborg beers we supped in our hotel, there is lots to love in Copenhagen.

Thirdly, there is so much to keep your entertained in Copenhagen. Get learning with the free Sandeman’s walking tour, check out the underwhelming but popular sculpture of ‘The Little Mermaid’, keep warm in the greenhouses in the botanical gardens, and sample beers in the Carlsberg factory. Discover a new perspective on a boat trip, climb the spiral church tower at the Church of Our Saviour, and visit the free town of Christiania. Embrace your inner child and play with Lego in the official Lego shop, and sit on a sunny terrace in Nyhavn (‘New Harbour’) – With outdoor heaters, and blankets on the chairs, you can dine al fresco whatever the weather, and yes chances are it’ll be cold. Watch the changing of the guards at the royal palace, or travel the short distance to Sweden to make it a multi-stop trip. We walked more than 6 miles a day in Copenhagen, so remember to pack comfortable shoes (or blister plasters). And *girl comment alert* all the walking means those pastry-pounds will stay away! Win-win.

Finally, the Danes are said to be among the happiest people in the world, and this feels true from the moment you step off the plane. And it’s infectious! Copenhagen left me feeling rejuvenated – I can’t wait to see more of Scandinavia…

IMG_2406Above: View from the top of the Church of Our Saviour.

Italy by Rail (Part 4: Venice)

IMG_1193I leap at any opportunity to share my love of Venice, one of my favourite places to be, so I’m excited to be writing this post and sharing some of my top picks!

Nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking sight that greets you as you leave the train station and find yourself on the edge of the Grand Canal. For me, this beats arriving by water-taxi or speedboat hands down. It is like entering another world – and one that you’ll be very reluctant to say goodbye to when the time comes.

Venice itself is pretty small, and if you like to tick off the sights, you’ll be able to do this easily, without much need for public transport. However, Venice is also the perfect place to just BE. So take a vaporetto (water bus) for no reason – if you’re under 29, the ‘Rolling Venice’ card and 3-day young persons’ travel card are a bargain! – island-hop with hoards of tourists, and find your own little piece of paradise. Enjoy navigating the intricate network of narrow streets, and the joy of leaving a busy tourist hot-spot and finding yourself in an isolated square within seconds.

I’ve been lucky to visit Venice 3 times in the past few years, but I still get a thrill from a ride in the gondola (made less romantic by the tourists snapping away at you as you go by, but with a charm of it’s own, and offering a unique perspective of Venice), and scoffing gelato in St Mark’s Square. However, my heart lies with the islands in the Venetian Lagoon, and the peace you find in the evenings when the vaporetto have stopped their regular trips, and the crowds  have returned to their cruise ships and tour buses. When you’re booking your Venetian adventure, consider staying on the island of Murano. While this might mean limiting your evening meal options, or splashing out for a water taxi or late vaporetto after dinner in Venice, it’s worth it for the tranquil feeling that you are the only people left on the island at night, and waking to watch the locals go about their daily business – this might sound obvious, but literally everything happens by boat; rubbish collection, fruit and veg sales, construction… it’s an awesome insight into island life! Last time I visited Venice, The Boy and I opted for pure luxury after 10 days of hostels, and booked 3 nights at La Gare Hotel Venezia – a stunning hotel on Murano, complete with prosecco breakfasts (and a spread to make your mouth water), comfortable luxurious rooms, and a smashing restaurant.

The small islands of Burano, famous for it’s lace-making, and Murano, of glass-making fame, are nicely geared up for tourism, with plenty of photo opportunities and locally-produced souvenirs to take home, but don’t dismiss the tiny island of Torcello, in the north of the Lagoon. With a full-time population of just 10 people, including the parish priest, Torcello offers breathing space after the crowds on Burano and Murano. There is a cathedral and church that are worth checking out, and the Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge), but the real attraction for me is Osteria Al Ponte del Diavolo. If you’re looking for a hearty but refined Italian meal, in a peaceful sunny garden, this is the perfect lunch stop. Oh and they also do wedding receptions, in case you are thinking about Italian nuptials!

Below: Pretty coloured houses in Burano, and a glass sculpture in Murano.

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I’m out of superlatives, so I guess it’s time for me to stop writing. I hope this post offers an insight into what makes Venice so special, and will encourage you to think outside the box just a little when you live your Venetian adventure.

Useful sites:

http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/content/rolling-venice

http://www.lagarehotelvenezia.com/en/

http://uk.osteriaalpontedeldiavolo.com/

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Beijing

How can I follow Anita’s fantastic Japan post? Continuing with the Eastern theme, I’m going to share my experiences of Beijing. As a Communist country, I didn’t find the same magic Anita found in Japan, but China is captivating in its own right. So here are … Continue reading

Japan

When the lovely, unicorn-loving illustrator Anita Perry said she was heading to Japan with her equally lovely new husband, we all agreed there could be no better honeymoon destination for the quirkiest girl we know! I’ve persuaded her to write a guest … Continue reading

York

I spent a wet and windy weekend in York with The Boy this autumn, and it blew our expectations out of the water! York is unlike any other city I’ve visited, and is more than worthy of being the subject of a blog post, so here goes…

A friend of ours from Doncaster recommended The Star Inn The City pub, and its cosy lounge, in its riverside setting close to the city’s Museum Gardens, gave us some respite from the cold. The food looked incredible, however as we already had dinner plans based on a recommendation from another friend, we confined ourselves to wine and coffee (both fantastic), and gazing lustfully at everyone else’s food. We had dinner at the Mumbai Lounge, an Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant in the heart of York – I’m a vegetarian, so I never expect my restaurant reviews to be respected by carnivores, but WOW this place is amazing! The Boy says his curry was the best he’d ever eaten. Bold statement, I know.

We spent a great morning at the National Railway Museum, and I wholeheartedly recommend this! I confess I’m a total history geek, and lover of all things vintage, so wandering round original royal carriages and exploring the stories of 100-year-old restored steam trains, was a little piece of heaven for me. HOWEVER… The Boy does not share my enthusiasm, and still had a good time, there is so much to see, and if I still haven’t convinced you, there is some really good cake in the tea shop!!

If shopping is your thing, York has plenty to offer. I could have spent all day in Demijohn’s – This is a “liquid deli” where you can try stunning oils, vinegars and a huge selection of drinks from their ‘demi johns’, and take what you fancy home in attractive bottles with hand-scribed personal messages. At home our nearest Demijohns store is apparently in Oxford. We may have to relocate!!! A visit to “The Shambles” is a must. This narrow, cobbled street is over 900 years old, and the slanting higgledy-piggledy roofs of the buildings lining it almost meet above your head. It’s an eerie reminder of the past, and retains an element of mystery and intrigue, however nowadays it’s the home of shops, cafes and tourist attractions, and it gives its name to a brilliant market.

Now for a ‘marmite’ comment… I’m a big, unashamed fan of using Premier Inn for city breaks in Britain. OK so it might not be my top choice for a special occasion, but I honestly think you can’t beat it for a night or two on a tight budget, and if it helps you to experience more of this amazing country (and leaves more spending money!), that must be a good thing right?! We paid £70 for 2 nights in York, with free parking, just a few miles from the centre – Brilliant. So if random city breaks feel a bit out of reach, it’s worth looking at local budget accommodation.

York is a beautiful city, and a great place to visit. We hope next time to head up in summer, to picnic in the gardens, check out the museums, and refill our bottles at Demijohns of course!