Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Travel: A weekend guide to Capri


Having been to Capri twice, I’m surprised that the majority of people tend to pay the beautiful island a fleeting visit, arriving just before midday and fleeing on a late afternoon ferry. There’s so much more to see on the island than the Blue Grotto and the Piazzetta in Capri town! Here are my top tips and recommendations for an extended trip to my favourite Italian Isle.

What to do:

The Blue Grotto and the Faraglioni
One of the most iconic sites of Capri, it’s impossible to visit the island without taking a boat over to the Blue Grotto. Hop aboard a boat in Marina Grande, either just to the Blue Grotto or a half-day trip to the Blue Grotto and continuing around the entire island. I chose to go around the whole island, taking in the lighthouse, a couple of smaller grottos and of course the Faraglioni.

For the Blue Grotto, you’ll need to be transferred to a wooden rowboat so your able skipper can navigate through the entrance to the grotto – be sure to lay as flat as possible as the entrance is barely a meter high! Once inside, you’ll see the grotto lit up by a beautiful azure blue light, while the boatmen sing old sailor songs. It really is something special.

I continued around the island and one of the highlights was seeing the Faraglioni, three huge rocks jutting out of the water. They’re an iconic emblem of Capri and this is the best way to see them so I highly recommend taking the half day boat tour.


Capri Town
Capri Town is unsurprisingly the epicentre of Capri island. As soon as you step off the boat, you’re whisked by funicular train up to Capri Town. The Piazzetta is the heart of Capri Town, with four bars on each side of the square – ideal for sipping a limoncello and people watching. The town has a very laid back vibe so it’s best to take it easy and just have a wander down the little lanes and enjoy it at leisure.


I’ll cover where to eat and drink a little later in this post but the town is great for shopping. Fashionistas must take a stroll down Via Camerelle to window shop every luxury brand from Prada to Gucci, Chanel is opening very soon right across the street from the Grand Hotel Quisisana.


Aside from food and fashion, there are two lovely hiking trails which start in Capri Town. There’s a lovely hike up to Villa Jovis which sits atop Capri’s second highest peak, Monte Tiberio. The second hike is slightly more leisurely, taking you to the Arco Naturale, a natural arch formed by the collapse of a grotto which dates back to the Palaeolithic age. Both hikes start at the same spot. Next to Piccolo Bar, head down a tiny little road which is no more than an alley called Via Le Botteghe. Keep following the road until you see signs for both Villa Jovis and the Arco Naturale, pick your route depending on how adventurous you’re feeling! There are some great little restaurants along the Arco Naturale route, as an FYI.


Anacapri
Anacapri feels like the real Capri, no glitz or glam, no celebrities and much fewer tourists, you get a feel for real life on the island. Full of pretty little lanes and piazzas decorated with bright geraniums and bougainvillaea, it’s so picturesque it barely feels real. It’s only a short 15-minute bus ride from Capri Town but feels like a world away. Those day trippers are really missing out!

The bus shudders to a stop in Piazza Vittoria, in between the chair lift for Monte Solaro and the main street in Anacapri. Getting a chair lift to the top of Capri’s highest peak is one of my favourite things to do on the island. It takes about 12 minutes to slowly make your way to the top of Monte Solaro, enough time to take in incredible panoramic views of the island. At the top, you’re rewarded with beautiful views across the Bay of Naples, just blue skies meeting blue seas. There’s a shop at the top but I recommend taking your own picnic of treats with you.

You can either return via chairlift or by hiking down the mountain. I’ve done both and thoroughly recommend the hike down – for one, gravity is working with you! It's not an arduous journey, just watch out for goats on your way down.


Once you’re back in Piazza Vittoria, head across the road to Via Giuseppe, the main street in Anacapri. This is a beautiful little bougainvillea-lined street full of shops and restaurants. Last time I was taking a stroll down, I made friends with an old Nonno who introduced me to his wife and sold me a pair of her hand-knitted baby booties.

About halfway down the lane, you’ll see signs to Chiesa Monulentale di San Michele. Follow them and you’ll find the most incredible church. The baroque church was completed in 1719 and while it may look simple on the outside, the inside houses one of Capri’s architectural treasures. Ceramic artist Leonardo Chiaiese painted the majolica tiled floor with a scene showing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The detail is incredible, best admired up close on the ground floor and in its entirety from the organ loft where the colours and scene really come to life.


Faro
From Viale Tommaso de Tommaso bus stop in Anacapri, you can continue by bus to Faro, the southernmost tip of the island. Home to Capri’s lighthouse, the second tallest in Italy, this little spot in drenched in sunshine from dawn til dusk. No wonder it’s a favourite spot for the locals, both for sunbathing at the beach as well as enjoying an epic sunset.

There are a number of paid-for beach clubs on the island but the Lido del Faro is free, perfect! Beaches on Capri tend to be rocky but the beach at Faro has sun decks nestled between the rocks, a beach club, restaurant and snack bar.

On Sunday, half the island descends onto Faro for a sunset beach party. There are three beach bars servicing cocktails and it’s the perfect spot to watch the sun set across the crystal clear waters.


Where to eat and drink:
When it comes to dining, you are spoilt for choice. Most of my favourite restaurants on the island are located in Capri Town, where you may or may not bump into one of the celebrities that love to visit Capri during the summer months.

La Capannina – Via Le Botteghe, Capri Town
La Capannina is a Capri institution. It dates back to the 1930s and everyone from Jackie O to Mariah Carey has passed through their doors – the walls are adorned with pictures of politicians, singers and royalty who have dined at the restaurant. During busy months, the beautiful conservatory is the place to be, decked out with flowers it’s a stunning space. I enjoyed a modest ravioli with parmesan topped asparagus as a side and regret not ordering more!



Aurora – Via Fuorlovado, Capri Town

Aurora is one of those places on the island, where you go to be seen. One of the top eateries on the island, it has a beautiful front terrace which is always lively as well as an expansive yet intimate dining space inside. Candle-lit tables with starched tablecloths and attentive waiters in black and white uniforms, this is the place to go for a special meal on the island. Owned by the D’Allesio family, the cuisine is traditional Caprese with a touch of Neapolitan flair. I started with a very green and very fresh minestrone soup followed by the thinnest, lightest margarita pizza I have ever had in my life, the base was paper thin but full of flavour. I didn’t want this gastronomic feast to end so of course, I found a little room for dessert, a delicious rhum baba was the perfect way to end this incredible meal.


Restaurant D’Amore – Via Fuorlovado, Capri Town

Just a couple of doors down from Aurora is Restaurant D’Amore. We grabbed a seat at the bright, pretty terrace to grab a quick bite before hopping on the ferry back to Naples and it’s probably one of the best impulse decisions I’ve made. The restaurant is a mix of old and new. The name itself is new, formerly known as the Ristorante Sollievo, and the place has had a beautiful, contemporary makeover. I had a delicious and generous portion of gnocchi alla Sorrentina, which was very welcome after the tiny portion I received at La Capannina. I finished my meal with the most exquisitely presented Crème Brulee. Even a month on, I still think about my meal at Restaurant D’Amore.


Villa Verde – Via Sella Orta

Villa Verde, like Aurora, came highly recommended and is known as one of the best eateries on the island – this was confirmed by the group of handsome Italians at the next table who inevitably started chatting to us. Despite the reputation, this was my least favourite place to eat. As a vegetarian, I’m used to having a reduced menu choice compared to my meat-eating pals but this has never really been a problem for me in Italy, I find it one of the easiest places to be vegetarian as everywhere does a margarita and a spaghetti Pomodoro as an absolute minimum. I opted for the latter as it was one of the few veggie-friendly options and it was awful. It was just spaghetti with chunks of very strong tomatoes chopped and thrown together, I didn’t get a hint of garlic, basil or any other seasoning. Luckily the tiramisu and multiple limoncellos saved this otherwise disappointing meal.


Taverna Anema e Core – Via Sella Orta

You’d be forgiven for assuming the nightlife in Capri was wild – ostentatious clubs rivalling the Just Cavalli club in Milan perhaps or perhaps super sleek hotel bars channelling the Armani hotel. There are in fact only two clubs on the entire island, the infamous yet unassuming Taverna Anema e Core and a nightclub I can’t quite remember the name of…despite two visits in two years. Located in the centre of Capri Town just a hop and a skip from Villa Verde lies the Taverna and its infamous stage show. The first time I visited the Taverna, I was ushered through the unmarked wooden doors by some rather cute Italian boys who promised it’s the best spot in town.

What I encountered was a live band playing traditional Latin and Italian songs which everyone (bar me) knew all the words to. Everyone was in high spirits, the drinks flowed freely and it was all very confusing. Hard to imagine Naomi Campbell or Beyonce and Jay Z in the Taverna but stranger things have happened. Like the end of the night when legendary owner Guido, a 90-something Italian Nonno, jumps on a table and starts to strip down to his white pants… to much applause. When I visit this year, I meet Guido himself. The charmer kissed my hand and sang me Italian love songs, the charmer. The second time around, knowing what I was in for, it was a super fun night and I can see why the Taverna is the island’s hot spot.

Where to stay:
Inevitably, there are a plethora of hotels to choose from in Capri. For me, location was super important. Having visited the island last year, I knew that I wanted to stay in Capri Town for ease, accessibility and of course to be near the good food! For me, the obvious choice was the Grand Hotel Quisisana – arguably the finest hotel in Capri. It was opened in 1845 and occupies an enviable location just off Via Camerelle. The neoclassical building is so grand and beautiful, the staff could not do more to help you and the breakfast buffet is to die for. I loved the beautiful pool area which looks our across the sea – this is a huge bonus owing to the lack of “proper” beaches on Capri. Read my full review of Grand Hotel Quisisana in my separate post, coming soon.


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Thursday, 4 June 2015

Hotel Review: Hotelito Lupaia, Italy

 
 
The process of choosing a hotel is a funny thing; everyone has a different set of priorities and you can easily spend hours if not days choosing where to stay. But sometimes you get lucky and a hotel chooses you. As much as I love a gallivanting in a new city, I’ve been yearning for some peace and quiet recently, my priority became finding a lovely under-the-radar, hidden gem of a hotel for some much needed R&R. While trying to decipher which pretty, picturesque little town to visit in Tuscany, I stumbled upon a picture of Hotelito Lupaia. More specifically, the jaw-droppingly beautiful infinity pool which has views across the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. Sold.
 
Hotelito Lupaia is located in the middle of a picturesque lush, green valley in Val d’Orcia, between the towns of Montepulciano and Pienza. As the images I had seen suggested, it’s very remote and idyllic. To describe it as off-the-beaten-path is an understatement; I used the latitude and longitude in the sat-nav and drove about 10 minutes on a little stony road to my final destination.
 
Hotelito Lupaia is truly breath-taking; even my pictures failed to capture how magical it is. A former medieval borgo, the hotel is made up of several cottages all connected with lovely old stone paths and surrounded with well-manicured gardens. And all around, the Tuscan countryside is laid out in front of you like a painting.
 

Like all good homes, the heart of Lupaia is its kitchen. Located in the biggest building at the centre of the hotel, the kitchen is a rustic Italian dream with the original beams, pretty tiling and copper pans hanging from the ceiling. The wonderful chef and team are on hand, preparing an authentic Tuscan feast each evening and the most impressive continental breakfast spread I’ve ever seen in the morning.
 
I was spoilt for choice and just had to indulge in a mammouth multi-course breakfast of homemade jams, cakes and croissants as well as fruits, cheeses and freshly cooked eggs. Hotelito Lupaia prides itself on being as carbon-neutral as possible; the cheese is sourced from a farm just across the valley which has the best pecorino I’ve ever tasted. The weather was gorgeous so I enjoyed my breakfast in the quiet wisteria-laden courtyard and took in the beautiful view of the Val di Chiana hills.


The rooms themselves are pretty, ivy-covered cottages from the original borgo, each one has been painstakingly restored and is unique. I stayed in the emerald green haven that is the Bosco room; I can safely say that I have never stayed anywhere so magnificent. From the cool, terracotta tiles to the handpainted walls and sumptuous window swags, the entire room was decorated in complementary shades of bold yet calming green.

I’m not the biggest fan of green but it really worked. Nothing about the décor in minimal, everything is carefully selected for impact – the hard-carved antique walnut bed with matching dressing table was the focal point of the room. Though the colours were bold, the room still retained an undeniably luxe feel with heavy fabrics and pretty, rustic touches such as the original rafters.

The real cherry on the cake is the magnificent infinity pool which overlooks the stunning rolling hills. The view coupled with the tranquillity and peace make for a killer combination; the pool at Hotelito Lupaia is among one of my favourite places in all of Italy.

My stay at Hotelito Lupaia was truly wonderful; all of the little details and touches have made this a really magical place unlike anywhere I have ever stayed. I can't fault a single thing, everything from the rooms and décor to the location and food is absolutely perfect. Lupaia has earned a special place in my heart and I'm looking forward to coming back for years to come.

 
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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Hotel review: Castello Banfi il Borgo, Italy


As much as I love long-haul travel and exploring distant lands, nothing compares to spring in Italy.
There’s just something magical, the weather is just perfect and everything is in bloom and so green.
The food is also pretty spectacular, but you get that all year round. Having spent time in Florence last
year, I was itching to explore the beautiful Tuscan countryside I glimpsed while visiting the pretty
little town of Siena, an hour or so outside of Florence. The emerald rolling hills and pretty, secluded
hamlets really struck a chord.

Deciding where to stay in Tuscany can be overwhelming; there are picturesque towns and villages
scattered across the vast county, each as captivating and charming as the last. Upon the advice of
friends in Florence, I decided to focus on the medieval village of Montalcino which is set in a world-
renowned wine producing region. Wine connoisseurs will be familiar with Brunello wine, which only
uses Sangiovese grapes and is absolutely delicious.


Standing at the top of a hill in the middle of Montalcino’s largest wine estate, Castello Banfi il Borgo
is a boutique hotel with two outstanding restaurants and an extensive wine shop on site as well as a
tranquil pool which overlooks the beautiful countryside. Actually, calling Castello Banfi a boutique
hotel is like calling an Oscar de la Renta gown a just a dress. As you can probably deduce from the
name, Castello Banfi is actually a castle which has medieval origins. The site was turned into
Montalcino’s largest wine estate in the 1970s. Borgo is Italian for hamlet, the site of the former
hamlet became homes for the workers on the estate and they now make up the 14 rooms and suites
of Castello Banfi il Borgo.


I spend a magical couple of days staying in one of the suites which was across a narrow lane from
the pool. The suite was wonderfully decorated by local interior designer Federico Forquet. Despite
having high ceilings and one of the biggest bedrooms I’ve ever stayed in, the suite felt so warm and
cosy; like a proper Tuscan country house. I couldn’t help but slip my espadrilles off and barefoot on
the cool terracotta tiles. The earthy tones of the tiles and walls were complimented with pretty floral
textiles and beautiful dark wood furniture which completed the homely feel.


I usually tend to venture away from hotels for meals so I can explore the local area a little but
between the breathtaking beauty and relaxation, the thought of venturing away from this little slice
of paradise just didn’t appeal so I had dinner at the on-site Tuscan restaurant, La Taverna. The
extensive seasonal menu sounded so delicious that I opted for an indulgent 3-course tasting menu. I
started with a light prawn and seafood spaghetti followed by the sublime duck ravioli and
cheesecake with coffee icecream for dessert. Each course was accompanied with a lovely Banfi wine
to complement the dish.


While the setting, suite and restaurant are all top notch, the real piece de resistance is the pool area.
Situated across a cobbled lane from my suite, the pool is situated on one side of the castle and
enjoys sunshine from the morning until the evening. The pool was surprisingly quiet; we were the
only guests from lunchtime onwards, enjoying the tranquillity and sweeping views across the
beautiful Val d’Orcia. Words don’t really do it justice so I’ll let this picture do the talking.


The main aim for my little jaunt across Tuscany was some much needed R&R. I felt the stresses of
London melt away before I drove through the castle gates and enjoyed the most indulgent and
decadent hotel stay ever. The team at Castello Banfi have created an outstanding escape in the
country, full of Tuscan charm with the outstanding standards you would expect from a world-class,
five-star hotel. The feel is so warm and welcoming with incredible attention to detail. I’ve never felt
more spoilt in my life and I can’t wait to come back to my little Tuscan hideaway.

 
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