Travel review: Bologna, Italy

If you’re looking for a quick 48-hour jaunt look no further than Italy’s gastronomic heartland, where the buildings glow red, the gelato is plentiful and just a two hour flight stands between you and a stroll down Bologna’s 38km of intricate poritcoes – Aperol in one hand and phrasebook in the other.

Its reputation for melding history and belt-busting food has earned it not one but three nicknames – la dotta, la rossi and la grassi; or the learned, the red and the fat, for those without the language skills. But do its walls painted in sunset hues, mosaic walkways and riches of mortadella, cheese and Prosecco live up to the hype?

We made a quick pit-stop at the Art Hotel Novecento before hitting the main square, Piazza Maggiore, for the evening. Though Bologna is just a short train ride from nearby Florence, this is a city where the mood is unfailingly polite and even in its central courtyard, there are no pushy waiters on street corners trying to entice you into the nearest tourist trap.

In fact, on a Tuesday afternoon the streets were practically deserted, leaving us to pick an osteria – cafes serving wine and snacks – quite undisturbed. At Zerocinquantuno 051, we raised our first Spritzes and ate salty slithers of Parma ham, roast belly pork and sundried tomatoes tucked into tigella – small, round-shaped bread made with olive oil.

Then, to the first of many ice cream stops – the much-lauded La Sorbetteria Castiglione, where in keeping with tradition, gelato is stored under the counter to keep it the perfect temperature and texture. We chose velvety scoops of salted caramel, rich dark chocolate and vanilla before chasing them with strong coffees and venturing out in the unforeseen evening drizzle.

Winding our way back to the hotel through a gloom of alleyways, fresh fruit and veg stalls punctuated the darkness with bursts of colour. We paused at a cheering window display of loose tortellini at one of Bologna’s most famous pasta-makers, Paolo Atti and Figli, where signs promised their wares were so authentic it would “fool your husband you made them yourself”.  A nightcap at Mercato di Mezzo also saw us tick off the city’s first indoor market, a three-storey pavilion that dates back to the Middle Ages and now hosts a handful of vendors serving cocktails and street food.

With only 36 hours left, we were out early on day two with a hit-list of eateries, churches and backstreets to visit. Our first stop was Via de’ll Indipendenza, a wide avenue of high street shops bordering the former Jewish ghetto. Veering into its maze of passages, we stopped to read about the fascinating history which saw a community forced by the Papal State to live within borders that were opened at dawn and closed at dusk.

img_3348Now home to an artisan crowd of independent retailers, cafes and bars, one of its greatest features is the network of canals running through its core. The guidebooks suggest peering through the window of a graffitied wall on Via Piella, but perhaps the best view of this not-so-hidden stretch of the Canale delle Moline is over the road, where its deep green water looks all the more vibrant for the golden buildings at its edges.

Leaving the corner of the city known as Little Venice behind, we made our way to one of Bologna’s top sights, La Torre Asinelli. We fully intended to climb its spiral staircase of 498 steps to take in rooftop views but restoration work has closed the tower until the summer. Instead we got our cultural fix at the basillica of Santo Stefano – a cluster of seven churches with mysterious origins. Thought to date back to 430 AD, the complex houses a labyrinth of ancient graves and a Benedictine cloister fronted by a suntrap made for idling in the midday sun.

In keeping with the religious theme, we toasted a successful afternoon of sight-seeing in Le Stanze – a former converted chapel in the student quarter. With its impressive frescoes duly appreciated and wine imbibed, we stopped for pick-me-up espresso martinis at the Jukebox Café before making our reservation at top gluten-free restaurant, Franco Rossi, where the service was faultless and the wheat-free pasta as good as its glutinous parent. Dessert at Cremeria Santo Stefano hit peak gelato, with unspeakably delicious custard cream and speculoos flavours on offer for just a few euros.

Our final morning was spent ducking into delicatessens with hams hung high in the windows to pick up souvenirs. Wedges of Parmesan and aged bottles of balsamic vinegar were high on the list of take-home treats and were gelato airline friendly, the stracciatella flavour from our last parlour stop, Cremeria Funivia, would have made the cut too. Bidding farewell to a city brimming with beauty and history, we returned home no redder given the intermittent sunshine, but we did come back slightly more learned and quite a bit fatter.


Vis proves the gem in Croatia’s island crown

The glorious cove at Stiniva, Vis, in Croatia.

The glorious cove at Stiniva, Vis, in Croatia.

There’s no finer way to cling onto the last days of summer than on the aquamarine shores of the Adriatic.

Croatia’s breathtaking coastline combines glamour with natural beauty, offering visitors a glimpse into its Mediterranean past and its glittering future as a top tourist destination.

Just a ferry’s ride away from our base in Split is the island of Vis – the most mysterious of the islands sprinkled between the former Yugoslav Republic and Italy.

We arrive in just over two hours and the afternoon is spent enjoying the peace and quiet of this ancient fishing port, lazily following the ribbon of cobbled streets to a tiny stretch of watering holes at the neighbouring hamlet of Kut.

With darkness falling, we retire to recharge our batteries for a full day of exploration, but not before tucking into artisan, wood-fired pizzas topped with smoked beef at restaurant Karijola.

Hiring a moped is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to zip across Vis and for the equivalent of £18 for eight hours, it’s well worth the money.

Beachside bites

Beachside bites

Croatia is known for its pebble beaches, but the allure of a sandy cove on the eastern side of the bay has us navigating the hairpin bends of the island’s steep hills on two wheels. Stoncica’s secluded shore boasts still, green waters teeming with tiny fish, while a beachside tavern serving up salty, barbecued lamb offers respite from the midday rays under a cluster of palm trees.

From there we wind our way through verdant vineyards drooping with olives and grapes to seek out Vis Town’s rival settlement, Komiza.

The journey offers stunning views from the top of Hum mountain down to the island’s sister village, which has a rough-around-the edges charm. Clusters of fishing boats are piled high at the water’s edge and at Komiza’s centre is a mix of bohemian bars serving crisp Croat beer.

Hitting Vis Town’s bars later that evening, we quaff local wine in backstreet bar Paradajz Lost, which lures us in from the main strip with crackly jazz played on an outdoor turntable.  Dinner is spent at sidestreet eatery Kod Paveta, sampling the catch of the day – grilled seabass in fresh herbs – and gorgonzola gnocchi sprinkled with walnuts.

Our last day in Vis sees us brave a death-defying trek down a crumbling mountainside to Stiniva’s cliff-flanked cove – a walk which requires sturdy shoes and nerves of steel.

Havr harbour

Havr harbour

Beaches aside, there’s plenty to explore on Vis, including Fort George, which celebrated its 200th birthday during our visit, and former top secret military sights abandoned by the Yugoslav army in the early 1990s. Eerie bunkers cling to the island’s craggy cliffs while a submarine tunnel remains carved into its heart.

Our last few days are spent on the party island of Hvar, where the pace is racy and fuelled by cocktails. A day trip by water taxi can take you to the nearby ‘Hell’s Islands’ – known for their clothing optional coves.  But for my money, the relatively unspoilt beauty of Vis is the gem in Croatia’s crown.

Berlin: Living like a local

The Wall

The Wall

In my experience, city “breaks” are rarely that – they’re the sort of jaunt that spits out a happy traveller nursing sore feet from three days of extreme sightseeing.

I was determined therefore to make this trip – my second experience of Germany’s capital city – a relaxed one, with ‘living like a local’ at the top of my agenda.

But I was quickly to be reminded that Berlin is not a city of rest.

Of all the airports I’ve experienced, Leeds Bradford is one of my favourites for its nonexistent baggage queues and swift security checks.

Add to that the Teutonic reputation for efficiency and we were on our Jet2 flight to Berlin quicker than you can say “zwei Bier bitte.”

With the aircraft pretty much to ourselves, we were given free reign of the seats which made for a very comfortable flight and we were greeted by the warm evening sun at Schoenfeld airport just over 90 minutes.

Taking a German-speaking partner on holiday ensured we were whizzing across the city on Berlin’s excellent metro service in no time to our first night’s destination, The Regent Hotel, in the borough of Mitte.

Considered by some as one of the best places to stay in the world, the five star luxury hotel boasts 156 rooms and 39 suites, priding itself on giving its guests a top notch stay in opulent surroundings.

Our superior double room boasted an en-suite bigger than my bedroom at home and more delights were to greet us in the morning with a silver service breakfast buffet, complete with continental cheese and meat served on three-tier stands.

Leaving well fed, we took a short taxi ride to the hip district of Kreuzberg, where we met our host, Eric, and his chocolate labrador, who showed us around our home for the next few days – a light, airy and spotless studio rented through online accommodation service,  Airbnb.
View from Kreuzberg

View from Kreuzberg

From there, it was straight out to explore our neighbourhood, a quirky mix of bars, shops and eateries just 25 minutes’ walk from the remains of the Berlin Wall.

We ambled further afield to examine what’s left of the city’s former dividing line (my graffiti scrawl of 2007 sadly erased by a 2009 paint job), before ducking into one of the city’s infamous beach bars, Yaam, for a beverage or three.

With the sun going down, it was time to consider the evening’s entertainment and we ended up dancing the night away to The Chromatics Cat Kreuzberg’s premier music venue, The Lido.

Nursing sore heads the next day, we picnicked in the shadow of Templehof Airport’s former look-out tower.

Once one of Europe’s three iconic pre-World War II airports, its closure in 2008 saw its grounds transformed into a public park and its interior into a premier dance venue for rave fiends.

Templehof Airport

Templehof Airport

Satisfying our curiosity with a closer peek, we then wiled away the afternoon rambling around Neukoln, nipping into renowned buy-by-weight vintage shop, Colours, and vinyl collectors’ heaven, Space Hall.

Dinner was a trip to Burgermeister – a converted toilet under Schlesisches Tor station – where we sampled some fine grilled meat washed down with hipster drink of choice, Club Mate and vodka.

Our final day saw the rain pour down and between posing in old style photo booths for a strip of four photos and popping into a backerei for a slice of apple cake, we squeezed in a trip up the Fernsehtrum.

Standing 1,200 feet in the east’s hub at Alexanderplatz, the TV tower is a former symbol of the DDR which offers sweeping panoramic views of Berlin.

On a clear day the architectural differences between the city’s once segregated halves are stark – the “new” pre-fab apartment blocks of the east contrasting with the “old” style buildings of the west.

A three day trip will never be enough to soak up all Berlin has to offer, but even a second trip to the country’s capital offered a multitude of new nooks and crannies to explore.

Just remember to pack an umbrella – even in May.