Winter Sunset in Sirmione
Only 30 minutes away from Verona (take the fast 15-minute train journey to Peschiera del Garda and then another 15-minute taxi ride to arrive at the tiny yet beautiful town of Sirmione on the shores of Lake Garda.
Nested in northern Italy’s Veneto region, Verona is a typical medieval old town built between the meandering Adige River. The city's claim to fame is that it is the setting of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet." Yes, it is a beautiful city. But romantic? That is debatable whether the city is actually romantic these days- it certainly did not feel on my trip. The strong smell of fertiliser coming from the fields around the town lingered in the cold air during our two day trip (actually one day is enough to see and smell the sights around this city). Here are some photos I took during my short trip. Enjoy!
Not So Romantic Verona...
With Verona being such a tiny city which you can easily navigate on foot in a day, finding a recommended eatery doesn't take too long. I was strongly advised by the Verona Tourism Board to go and try the famed Al Bersagliere: a Michelin Guide restaurant owned by the chef and restauranteur Pietro Leopoldo Ramponi, who counts as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams among many other celebs as his close friends.
The original restaurant was a tiny but very buzzy gourmet restaurant located in the northern part of the city. The Al Bersagliere is located in a stereotypical quiet Italian town lane in the heart of the old Filippini neighbourhood, offers a precious occasion to experience the old, authentic tastes of Veronese traditional cuisine. The setting and ambiance is lovely - you are surrounded with memorabilia collected over the decades by Mr. Ramponi, including many of his own musical instruments, as well as photographs with many famed musicians and superstars who he is friends with. Then there is the large personal collection of wines, some rare. The wine carte features over 200 labels, pre-eminently Italian. Rich choice of Veronese wines: 60 Amarone labels. Well-pondered selection of spirits: 60 grappa labels, 280 whiskys, 18 rhums; Oils carte. You won't find anything like this anywhere in the city, let alone with region. The restaurant has three rooms (piano room, singers room, sport room and a garden, open in the summer) plus a twelfth century cellar which is worth a visit.
There is a reason why Mr. Ramponi has won the Michelin Guide, apart from the somewhat unique settings, he serves up inventive and sometimes playful tweaks of the Verona tradition. He's a master of culinary camouflage - one of his signature dishes is Horse steak garlic parsley oil. He is also a well-qualified sommelier who is able guide to some of Italy's lesser-known quality producers. My wife and I went for the highly recommended mixed polenta and the pastissada with polenta as we didn't want to go for the exotic meat dishes. All of this was washed down with a highly recommended glass of Valpolicella Classico red. It all tastes very good and is worth every penny. The best part of having dinner at this eatery is that you can enjoy a stroll along the narrow cobbled Verona lanes and slowly make your way back to the hotel.
Grand Hotel Des Arts, Verona
This lovely and compact hotel is located only a short ten-minute stroll from the main train station on one side and another five-minute stroll to the Piazza Bra and the famous Verona Arena. Verona is a tiny city, famed for being the setting of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, though in actual fact these days the city not very romantic as such. Even though the hotel does not feel very romantic itself, however, the management do provide some small tokens of romantic appreciation, such as the welcome chocolates we received when we checked-in.
As per the name of the hotel itself, you may have guessed quite rightly that there are plenty of works of art collection that guests can purchase. Four-star comfort, coupled with an impeccable and friendly customer service are complemented by the nearby setting of lovely eateries.
The rooms are themselves tiny, somewhat modern and tastefully decorated in neutral tones. The quality you get is perfect for a four-star accommodation. The beds are quite comfortable, the rooms are quiet and average-sized bathrooms with walk-in showers and L’Occitane toiletries. instead of a toothpaste and toothbrush, I found it interesting to see a cloth with which you can clean your teeth. Never have experienced it. Tried it and it somewhat did the job but I would not be running to my local supermarket to purchase this stuff. All rooms include flat-screen TV with cable and satellite channels, Wi-Fi, tea kettle and minibar.
There is no restaurant on-site, though some nice restaurants are only a walk away. Breakfast, which is served in an unusual setting in the basement, includes a wide selection of European cheeses and cold meats, hot dishes such as eggs and omelettes, and fresh pastries and croissants. The reception contains a couple of lovely touches, including complimentary hot and cold non-alcoholic drinks and a selection of daily news digest from around the world. Overall, it is a lovely hotel if you are in town for a short stop-over, as are most people, while on the way to Lake Garda or to Milan or Venice.
St Regis Florence - an Exclusive Review
Situated at the north end of the River Arno and opposite its sister hotel, the Westin Excelsior, the magnificent St Regis Florence with its super-grand guest rooms at this fifteenth-century former palace on the Piazza Ognissanti does not fail to captivate. This is luxury at its finest and you cannot get a better authentic luxury experience than this in Florence.
My wife and I had just completed staying two nights at the Westin Excelsior and so were very much looking forward to trying out the Royal Suite at the St Regis. The good thing about both properties being part of the Starwoods group is that they do share some aspects - when we checked out of the Westin Excelsior, concierge helped us to effortlessly take our luggage to the St Regis. Even though both the Westin Excelsior and the St Regis are both part of the same group of hotel companies, they do differ slightly.
The St Regis has a more grand feeling to it. Artwork, custom frescoes, antiques, crystal chandeliers, and warm hues decorate all the 100 rooms and suites. Our Royal Suite had a river view room- you just cannot miss the superb sweep up-river toward the Ponte Vecchio. For those of us who are into their fashion there’s the austere Bottega Veneta suite; other rooms are more Florentine-classic with city-themed murals in some. The St Regis Florence is a firm favourite with many celebs, including Kim Kardashian, who according to our butler stayed in the same Royal Suite for a few days during her visit to Florence.
Upon arrival into our suite, my wife and I were greeted with a lovely bottle of fine Marleo red wine and an eye-watering display of macaroons - some welcome gifts signed by the hotel manager.
What really distinguishes this hotel from the others is the signature full butler service, which includes an eButler feature that allows guests to send e-mail requests around the clock. The butlers here really know how to delight the guests. On one of the evenings as we returned back to our Suite after a day of sightseeing, we were gobsmacked to see our bed decorated with a pictorial recommendation by the butler- this was in addition to the traditional turndown service.
As mentioned above, location wise you cannot go wrong with the St Regis. The hotel is around 10-15 minutes walking distance from the main railway station. If you have heavy luggage then it is of course suggested to take a taxi, but other than that even if you have a medium sized luggage then you can easily walk along the cobbled streets to the station. Within minutes you can also walk to the Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio, and the Duomo, all must-see spots in Florence. My wife and I enjoyed trying out some of the local eateries near the central market, which actually offers better options than some of the high-end restaurants in the city. While the Piazza del Duomo tends to be heavily congested with tourists, we also enjoyed taking a stroll down the less crowded streets checking out the small shops and restaurants. You can never go wrong in Florence.
Food lovers must try the upscale Winter Garden by Caino restaurant, located inside an elegant glassed-in courtyard. The chefs here are true creative geniuses - it is highly recommended that you try the breakfast here during one of the mornings of your stay. The restaurant showcases Tuscany’s flavors; take a tasting session in the wine cellar, created from an actual cave. We also had in-room breakfast, which is another key selling point of the Royal Suite, as you can indulge in scrumptious cuisine while admiring the nice views.
Then there are the minor but important features that make all the big differences to ones stay, such as the butler remembering your dining choices and preferences and house-keeping knowing what side of the bed you sleep on or what type of pillow you prefer. Lovely touches also include tea by Dammann Freres, bathroom amenities by Acqua di Parma, preserves by Schianchi, yogurt for breakfast by Sterzing Vipiteno and all food served on fine bone china by Richard Ginori. The guest service is absolute first class, and the staff are always there for any of your needs while at the same they respect privacy (like in some cultures from my experience, the staff can be too over the top when it comes to being friendly and helpful). We'll be back for sure.
Blessed with fabulous views of the historic bridges over the River Arno and away from the hustle and bustle of Florence's city scape, the Westin Excelsior is one of the city's more traditional five-star hotels. The 171 rooms and suites, all of which are generously spaced, are gifted with opulent interiors and truly five-star services and facilities to make any other luxury hotel in the world envy of its charm. The hotel is a short walk from the main train station and is a perfectly valid option for both leisure and business travellers.
My wife and I arrived in the evening, and we were greeted at the reception by friendly and welcoming staff who made sure that the whole process was made swift and seamless for us. We were provided with a river-view room, complete with a spacious balcony, enough for couples to have breakfast or dinner in the presence of the scenic views. All rooms have Westin’s trademark ‘Heavenly Bed’, an extraordinarily cocooning combination of superb mattress, softer-than-soft topper and light-as-air duvets and pillows.
The panoramic views sweep towards the Ponte Vecchio and up to Forte Belvedere are just out of this world- truly magnificent. It feels as if you have stepped back in time.
The interior throughout reflects Tuscan, Empire, and Florentine influences with coloured marble floors, neatly decorated stained glass, tapestries, and frescoes. The rooms offer cutting-edge design, superior connectivity (Wi-Fi is free in some rooms) and a modern take on convenience. One of the key features of the hotel is the glass-encased rooftop restaurant, which offers spectacular views of the city lights and a selection of more than 300 wines (I was given a bottle of 2014 Chianti Classico on arrival as a gift by the hotel manager, along with fresh fruit platter). The sky is so clear here that I even managed to get a nice shot of the milky way after midnight. The spacious marble bathroom is fitted with combo showers and a bath, with luxury amenities provided by Acqua Di Parma.
Foodies would be delighted to know that there are plenty of options available throughout the property. Apart from the rooftop lounge and restaurant SE*STO on Arno, having weekend brunch at the Westin is popular and arguably the best in the city, with giant tables overflowing with fish, salads, cheeses and raw bar fare, including langoustines and clams. The lobby hosts the ORVM Bar, with expertly mixed cocktails.
During our two nights at the hotel, we decided to enjoy breakfast in the lobby restaurant for one morning, and in-room breakfast for the final day's stay. Both options are highly recommend. Though, if you prefer to have a romantic setting for your breakfast, then nothing beats the sight of having breakfast with your loved one while admiring the views of the River Arno- we were lucky to the lovely weather to accompany during our stay.
With all the creature comforts offered at hand, it goes without saying that it has the high price tag to match and that is further inflated by its inviable location.
I have a personal confession to make. Some of the Italian food I have tasted in Italy has been disappointing. I ended up asking my Italian friends back in London and also at the Tuscany tourism board if there was an authentic Italian restaurant where I would not end up paying ten Euros just for a simple and boring thin baked pizza with a bunch of olives and slices of ham on it. They thankfully advised me to try Boccanegra and I am glad I have not been disappointed. This tiny yet marvellous eatery is unique in that it offers three diverse dining experiences from which to choose. The elegant restaurant attracts a classy clientele for its attention to detail in the elaboration and presentation of high-quality Mediterranean dishes, and it is the perfect setting for romantic couples, families or even business persons. A slightly informal setting can be found in the wine bar which serves a selection of the regional antipasti including cured meats and cheeses along with the endless amounts of wine. For pizzas (my favourite part), head to the intimate wine cellar.
My wife and I tried some of the specialities on offer including the local beef steak, grilled vegetables Florence style and the veal belly in santo reduction bell pepper pure and steamed daikon. Boccanegra is quite specific when it comes to their dishes, drawing on the traditions of Florence. The selection we asked for gave us a taste of absolute luxury – marinated mackerel fillet cowpeas cauliflower. And rarities, too – fish soup with tofu (sounds more Asian but had a strong Frienze twist to it), not so gloriously named but included a splendid fish nevertheless. Quite luscious. The mackerel turned out to be slightly meaty, but delicate and elegant. my stomach felt delighted and I finally had a good impression about the cuisine in this city.
It’s a cuisine that does go out of its way to please: compared with other Italian traditions, Tuscan food can look plain but somewhat delicious. The food doesn't come across as slightly dirty as elsewhere: there’s not much deep frying and hardly any salty cheese, and the vegetables are perfect. The chef recommended a bottle of fine Poggio Al Lupo, a local wine, to go with the meat and fish. So we eat, a lot – and everything was good. Very, very good in fact. You could feel the freshness of the food - rich, buttery, almost juicy, with the sting of minced red onion and filaments of local chilli for the subtlest heat to add to dishes such as the fish soup with tofu and veal.
The ambiance is perfect, with photos by Matisse and adequately volumed music of good taste and one that allows diners to have a nice talk while enjoying the food. The staff are very professional, friendly, incredibly sweet and customer-focused and are particularly helpful when it comes to selecting the right wine for your meal.
Boccanegra is not cheap. Of course it’s not: I’m sorry if I’m breaking it to you, but cheap Italian food does not equal great Italian food, and in Florence you get what you pay for (well, almost always). And this is a great Italian restaurant. If you buy pizza here, then you get a full on pizza that doesn't make Pizza Hut's food taste better (as was the case with some of the pizzas I tried in Florence). Trust me, believe me, you get some really cons here (and everywhere else in Italy or anywhere else for that matter). I’ve probably ruined it for everyone now. You have my sincerest apologies. But go on, come here and see for yourself- you will not regret it a bit.
City of Bridges
There's Only ONE David
Ice creams, pizzas and spirits
After trying ice-cream, pizza (which actually tastes much better in my local Waitrose, Tescos and Sainsbury's by the way) and the Negroni, you kind of get sick and think...anything else for food here?
Negroni- a local cocktail made from one part sweet vermouth rosso, one part Campari and one part gin normally served over ice and garnished with a piece of flamed orange peel. Notice how simple the pizza is? It was just a baked piece of bread with a splosh of tomato sauce - cost 15 Euros: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Florence at Night
Full Moon over River Arno, Florence
Kiss and Ride
The other kind of Spaghetti Bolognese
The Pope Does Not Condone Birth Control!
Located in midst of the beautiful fields of the Emilia-Romagna region is it's underrated capital city, Bologna. Most of the people I know who have been there say that the city gives them that feeling of "yeah, it really does feel like those laid back traditional Italian towns". Even though the vast majority of tourists venture off to places such as Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice, they are most likely to go through Bologna train station, which ironically is one of the country's busiest ones. The tiny city is served with a lovely airport, named Guglielmo Marconi after the famous Italian inventor and electrical engineer known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission.
The city is small enough to get around easily on foot, is full of culture, and offers what many people claim is the best food in Italy - the term Spaghetti Bolognese comes from the local dish. One of the first things you notice is that Bologna is red. By that I mean the red bricks that most of Bologna’s historic buildings and porticoes are made from. The best way to explore the city is on foot, taking time to admire the architecture and absorb the nice views, and the best views are without a doubt from the top of the Bologna Tower, which can only be assessed by foot via a narrow staircase consisting of 498 steps and is well worth it.
Situated slap bang in the middle of Bologna's historic city centre and within a comfortable minute's walk from the Two Towers and only 200 meters from the Pizza Maggore, the splendid Corona D'Oro 1890 is an oasis. From the outside it doesn't do justice to the grand splendour of its interior, which is actually inside a 14th century building.
The comfortable four-star hotel which promises a truly five-star experience and provides an excellent service. The Corona D’Oro, with 40 spacious yet ordinary rooms, is no exception to this rule. The hotel neatly blends the combination of an elegant mixture of different architectural styles - the gothic walls, renaissance ceilings, Art Nouveau hall, coats of arms on ceilings and the magnificent liberty of its entrance hall .
One of the added bonuses of the hotel is that the staff are courteous, kind, speak fluent English and are exceedingly helpful. For the adventurous, there is a free bike hire available for exploring this magcificant city of red roofs, tiny Fiat cars and friendly dogs and of course the remarkably delicious cuisine. Make full use of the complimentary Wi-Fi and if you wish the tiny business lounge with fax and printer. One thing you may want to bring with you would be an adapter plug as there is no guarantee that one would be available- plus there is a five Euro deposit charge if you want to borrow one.
A complimentary breakfast is served in the functional basement room- try some of the unique homemade cakes, breads and various jams and preserves including pistachio spread. There is no Club lounge, however there is a €10 evening happy hour service which includes a good selection of stuzzichini and various food and beverages. For dinner, there are numerous reasonably priced restaurants on the streets surrounding the hotel. We went to the nearby Ca' Pelletti on Via Altabella. For disabled guests, the hotel offers two rooms with disabled access and for those with babies, guests can request services such as babysitting from the staff.
This was my first time to the tiny and underrated Italian city of Bologna, and indeed my first time to indulge into it's local cuisine, namely the spaghetti bolognese. The city is the home of the famed dish, and there is no other better place to try it at than the Trattoria Leonida.
The eatery, which has been delighting diners since 1938, is located on one of the oldest streets in the centre of Bologna, near the magnificent Piazza Santo Stefano. Tucked away neatly in the narrow and quiet lanes behind the Two Towers of Bologna, a group of two medieval structures known as Garisenda and Asinelli, and that are the landmark of the city. As you are walking down the dimly lit lanes, which are paved with original medieval stones, you get the feeling that you are effectively stepping back in time.
While the eatery doesn't offer any magnificent views of Bologna’s red roofs and the hills beyond, the setting is rather romantic as it gives a glimpse into why every evening is fully booked among tourists and the locals.
Should you find yourself craving for an authentic Bolognese, rest assured that you are in the vicinity of culinary greatness. Starters that tickle your taste buds include finely oiled slices of salami and speck bacon and the chicken breast with balsamic vinegar. This should be accompanied with a glass of Veneto: try Amarone 2007 - Villabella. Even for the starters, each plate elicits a slow moan of ecstasy that makes you want more.
For the main course, except for the traditional bolognese which everyone wants to try, opt for something adventurous such as tagliatelle pasta with prosciutto ham and peas. If, however, you really want to have your mind and taste buds blown away, try the slightly heavier wild game specialities, such as local hare with polenta. The polenta balances out the heaviness of the meat. It is one of the most ravishing plates of food you will find anywhere, but the cosy and warm ambiance at Trattoria Leonida is too upbeat to stay staring at your dinner for long.
A "Follow Me" LAMBORGHINI at Bologna Airport
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