I recently had the pleasure of a guest spot on Best Bits Worldwide, a travel blog run by a lovely friend of mine. Susan is an American living in London and travels widely, blogging about the best bits of her destinations. She’s been to around 50 countries and has lots of recommendations from the best places to shop in Antwerp, to travel tips for navigating Burma to eating in Calabria! So, just in case you didn’t see it, here is my full interview along with some additional photos from my ever growing library!
Where do you feel you really “savored the authentic” in your travels?
I’m a total Italophile so wherever I go I try to find out as much as I can about the history and traditions of the town or region to understand it better.
My most authentic experience was undoubtedly when I was lucky enough to see the legendary Palio horserace in Siena four years ago. The world famous event takes place twice a year in July and August but it isn’t put on for tourists, it’s a fiercely Senese occasion for the people of Siena.
Forty thousand people packed into the main piazza from early afternoon to watch a parade of flag-bearers, drummers and medieval knights in armour before the race-horses and their riders arrived. And just as the sun began to set behind the Siena Duomo, the race kicked off with a canon-shot signaling the beginning of the 90-second race.
The atmosphere was electric and you could almost taste the adrenaline and anticipation as the 10 horses galloped 3 times round the piazza. A second canon-shot sounded to declare the winner and the piazza erupted as supporters jumped the barriers to congratulate the horse and jockey and claim the prize – a hand-painted silk banner or palio. The winner and palio were then paraded around the piazza before returning to their district, or contrada, with their supporters singing them home.
I’ve never experienced anything quite as passionate, visceral or exciting before or since and can only compare it to the atmosphere of a football World Cup Final multiplied by an arena concert by your favourite artist multiplied by New Year’s Eve! It was spectacular and yet resolutely local.
Where do you feel you experienced the most luxurious travel bit – depending on your own definition of luxury?
I don’t often travel first class or stay in many 5 star hotels – to me, luxury usually means location, location, location and being at the centre of the action. My most luxurious travel moment was on my first trip to Venice ten years ago, when I somehow managed to get a room in the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal for ten days without spending a fortune!
The hotel has pride of place on the Grand Canal, 2 minutes from St Mark’s Square with Harry’s Bar and a gondola station on its doorstep and directly opposite the Church of the Salute, one of the most iconic buildings on Venice’s skyline.
The 15th century hotel has a long and colourful history starting out as a noble’s palace, later becoming a ridotto or private club for gambling, courtesans and all types of pleasure. The legendary Giacomo Casanova was one of its most famous guests but now the hotel offers luxury without the “added extras”! Eating from a top quality seasonal menu on the hotel’s canal-side terrace overlooking the spot-lit Salute was one of the highlights of the trip and has stayed with me as one of my favourite travel memories. I felt very spoilt.
What keeps you going back to your favorite haunt/city/Best Bit?
There are several places in Italy that give me chills from excitement every time I return. Siena and Venice both still make me giddy as a school-kid when I arrive, but one of my first impressions of Italy on my first trip to Italy was the Coliseum in Rome.
I landed during a spectacular thunderstorm and as the taxi driver raced through the rain-soaked late-night streets of Rome, the Coliseum was momentarily lit up by a bolt of lightning. It was a wonderful sight and the next morning the Coliseum was my first port of call. Even 12 years later I continue to be amazed at how the stadium was ever built 2000 years ago, funded by the spoils of war from the Romans’ conquest of Jerusalem and also that it is still standing today!
And that’s just the tip of the history iceberg as far as Rome is concerned! Over the course of a long weekend I visited the Forum where Marc Anthony gave his funeral oration to Julius Caesar, the Pantheon, once a Roman temple and now a Christian church, St Peter’s Basilica, the church designed in part by Michelangelo and countless other sites from ancient history.
I could spend a lifetime there and still not know everything about the ancient city founded by the she-wolf-fed twins Romulus and Remus. It continues to fascinate me even after 6 or 7 visits over the years, I suspect it always will!
If you had to pick one anywhere in the world, what would be your following Best Bits
Best Bed – the one I’m in now in Venice. It’s got an old painted bed-head, is huge and very, very comfortable! Sadly I’m only here for a few more days before I have to change apartments but it’s been a blast here for the last 4 months!
Best Bite – The best bite I’ve had recently was at the Osteria Anice Stellato restaurant in the Cannaregio district of Venice. My friend and I enjoyed a wonderful meal of local seafood ingredients combined with subtlety and intelligence and I’m looking forward to going back in the New Year! (Anice Stellato is at 3272 Fondamenta de la Sensa, Cannaregio, Venice.)
Best Brew – I’m not a big drinker and I’ve never drunk beer, tea or coffee, so this is a slightly tricky one! I do like a cocktail now and then though so when my friend came over to visit recently we did the tourist thing and had a Bellini in the original Harry’s Bar where the cocktail was invented. And although they cost €17 each (ouch!), they were very good! Plus we had an impromptu Venice history lesson from the barman that was fascinating. Failing that, I like nothing more than meeting up with some mates and having a drink in the Cantina Aziende Agricole, a local bar, again in Cannaregio, that serves some decent wines for just €1 or €2.50 per glass!!
Best Binge – It’s a toss up between three things…..
- The obvious thing would be buying myself a ticket to the Siena Palio for my birthday. I could have had a package holiday in Majorca for the same price but the Palio is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was everything that Siena is about, all wrapped up in the 90 seconds it took the horses to do 3 circuits of the main Piazza del Campo. Family, pride, tradition, loyalty, history, rivalry.
- But I also really enjoyed a city-break in Rome recently when a friend and I went hand-bag shopping! We were there for the Six Nations Rugby Tournament 2014 (Scotland pipped Italy to the post in the last 10 seconds of the match!) but seeing as we’re both suckers for a handbag we also spent an afternoon drooling over some of the beautiful leather creations on offer! And lucky for us the sales were on! Overall we had a great weekend exploring the classic city, watching the rugby and diving into shops in between visiting the sights! Might have to do it again this year if my credit card account can withstand it!
- And last year I spent 4 days at the Perugia Eurochocolate festival savouring every possible type of chocolate imaginable! Truffles, chocolate liquor, lollipops, hot chocolate, white chocolate, plain chocolate and chocolate with fruit and nuts!! It was a chocoholics heaven!!
Where have you left your heart?
My heart is without question in Venice and I hope I don’t ever have to leave it here! I feel totally at home in the streets and alleyways that have been home to so many fascinating and famous people and definitely see myself living here for the near-future. I’ve made some wonderful friends already and I’ve got lots of UK friends coming over this year so I will be able to share the city with them too, showing them all the hidden spots that I’ve discovered. I’m sure they’ll love it too!