25 January 2014

A day trip to Burano

Travelling from Venice to the island of Burano by vaporetto

If you've ever been to Venice, you'll know it is very beautiful but very busy. As we had time, we decided to get away from it all and catch a water bus to one of the islands. The crop of surrounding islands tends to be quieter than the main tourist areas and you get to see a different side to this historic city. The main ones are Lido, Burano and Murano.
A sea view of Venice
We'd seen Jamie Oliver recommending a restaurant in Burano called Al Gatto Nero as the best place to try fresh fish in Venice. And, as we are the sort of people to take a day trip purely to try a restaurant, we decided on Burano.

It takes about an hour to get the island and its a stunning, relaxed journey. As you depart from Venice, you watch the huge crowds of people fade away like ants and get a sea-view of all the historic domes and towers of Venice without anyone stood in front to restrict the view.
The picture postcard island of Burano
The island itself is like an assault on the eyes. Every building is painted a bright, vibrant colour. Meaning that the canals crossing through the island are lined on either side with a patchwork of different coloured buildings. It is really, really pretty. Even as amateur photographers, every photo we took was like a picture postcard.

Burano is famous for lace, so you'll find it hanging up in all the shop windows. But having just got married, lace was the last thing on my mind! After months of dieting, I wanted food. I wanted wine. 

After five minutes or so we found the restaurant. We hadn't thought to book and, even at 2 in the afternoon, there was a long queue of diners waiting to be seated. In the end, we ate inside because it would have been a huge wait for the outside tables. But if we went again, it would be nice to sit canal side and watch the boats floating past.

As soon as we were seated, a glass of prosecco was put in front of us and a lovely selection of bread and crackers. To start, we ordered the "Al Gatto Nero" experience to share. It was described: "encounter the Adriatic and the Venetian lagoon by savouring these hors d'oeuvre selected and created by Ruggero. (Fish proposed will depend on the night market)."
Me canal side in Burano
Essentially, we had no idea what we were getting. But for just 30 Euro, we were presented with two huge plates over-spilling with an incredible selection of seafood. It included scallops, large prawns, razor clams, baby clams, squid, octopus, mussels and a few other fishies we couldn't identify.
Before and after, the Al Gatto Nero Exerience
We washed it down with a cold and crisp bottle of Monte Grande Soave Classico 2012. Tasting of peach, almonds and citrus, it was the perfect accompaniment to our fishy treat. 

It was incredible value and very delicious. For lunch, the starter platter would probably have been enough but we'd both ordered substantial main courses! My spaghetti alle vongole was the best I tried in Italy, although I was ashamed by how much I left!

Not only was the food delicious, the service was first class too. Our waiter was from the Dominican Republic and had photos of his children above the bar. I obviously played the honeymoon card (well, you only get the chance once). So he brought us a little present of a glass, black cat from Murano. Very sweet. 
After a few glasses of wine. Well, it was my honeymoon...
After browsing the dessert wine menu for a while, our waiter brought us another gift. A glass of sweet prosecco with Venetian biscuits for dipping. We spent five minutes or so trying to decipher the taste of the drink. Apple? Pear? He finally let us know it was strawberry. Absolutely mouth watering. 

Afterwards, we wound our way back through the streets to the vaporetto terminal. Very full, slightly inebriated and having enjoyed a lovely, romantic meal. 

It's a bit of an effort to get to Burano, but in my view, 100% worth it. Especially for the trip to Al Gatto Nero. Without a doubt the best meal I had in Italy and a great experience in a pretty little town. 

But remember to book a table at the Black Cat restaurant. 

Getting there:

We'd been walking around Piazza St Marco, so took the vaporetto (water bus) route number 24 from the San Zaccaria terminal just a short walk away from the square. The vaporetto goes via Lido for a change at Punto Sabbioni. You can then hop on the vaporetto route number 12 which stops at Treporti before finally arriving at Burano. It cost 39 Euro for a pair of return tickets.

You can also get to Burano from the terminal on the other side of Venice called Fondamente Nove. This is a slightly cheaper and quicker route, but I guess it depends on what side of Venice you happen to be.

We travelled at the end of September when it was warm and dry. Around 26 degrees C.

19 January 2014

Why are there so many padlocks on bridges in Italy?

Lock your love in Italy

For a wedding present, a friend of mine gave me a padlock with the initials of my husband and I scrawled on it in permanent marker. In the attached card, she wrote for us to go to Venice and "lock our love". I had no idea why but it was a wonderful, mysterious present.

Once we got to Venice, we soon saw the answer. All along the Rialto Bridge, the Ponte dell'Accademia and Scalzi Bridge are rows and rows of padlocks, all with a pair of initials inscribed on them.
Rows of padlocks on
 the Ponte dell'Accademia

If you go to Florence, you'll find the same on the Ponte Vecchio. And in Rome you'll find them on the Ponte Milvio.

Apparently it's a trend that started in Rome a few years ago. Young lovers would inscribe their initials on the a padlock and then throw the key into the river Tiber as a symbol of eternal love.

It's thought a novel by Federico Moccia inspired the cult. The book, called Three Metres above the Sky was later followed up with I Want You, in which a young couple from very different backgrounds begin a romance. They attach a padlock to Rome's Ponte Milvio in order to seal their everlasting love.

I say apparently, because unfortunately, the book doesn't seem to have been translated into English. And, my Italian is pretty much limited to wine and food.

Unfortunately, the Italian authorities don't like it much.They claim the padlocks damage the historic bridges and that they are an eyesore. So they've been removing padlocks from the bridges in Venice and Rome and 5,500 were removed from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence with the reason provided that they were scratching and denting the metal of the bridge.
The romantic view from the Ponte dell'Accademia

There were signs up everywhere giving threats of fines for anyone caught attaching a padlock to the bridges. And, in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio bridge was patrolled by police (we weren't sure whether this was because of the padlocks or the pickpockets).

It doesn't seem to stop people carrying out the ritual though. As there was little evidence of any locks being missing with the rails and posts of the bridges literally bulging. And, on nearly all the stalls surrounding the bridges there are locks being sold for a few Euro and they will even help you out with a permanent marker so you can brand your padlocks.
The Ponte Vecchio in Florence
And I think they look lovely and not an eyesore at all. Plus, the whole romance of the act really helps add to the romance of the cities. I think it is a lovely thought to imagine thousands of couples throwing keys into the river, with the same hope in their souls that this symbolic gesture will help ensure their love survives the rocky waters ahead.

And did we attach our padlock to the bridge? Well of course not. It's not allowed....

18 January 2014

A different side to Venice

The other side of the Canal

We were lucky enough to spend the first and second nights of our honeymoon in Venice. Having never been there before, I was delighted to discover that it was every bit the romantic and magical city I hoped it would be.

However, it is hectic. Very, very hectic.

The view from our bathroom at Hotel Dalla Mora
There are street sellers on every corner flogging all manner of tat. From fake Gucci bags and purses to toys that shoot up in the air or splat on the floor. Add to that the hoards of tourists streaming around the narrow streets and bridges, stopping to take photos and videos of all the things you want to stop and take photos of.

That's why we were so glad we were staying in a quieter area of Venice.

We'd read that the Santa Croce region was quieter with more of a residential, local feel than the really touristy area San Marco.

Yes, there are still stalls selling One Direction t-shirts and Venetian masks, but there is a quiet calm to the canals which is lovely to enjoy. When you turn the corner into Santa Croce, it's like the world stops a bit, the noise disappears and you can breathe.

Reverse of Hotel Dalla Mora
The hotels tend to be a bit cheaper too. We opted for Hotel Dalla Mora which is just a five minute walk from the main bus terminal and car park area, Piazzale Roma. The hotel is pretty basic. Well, very basic. But it is right on one of the canals and our ground floor room literally faced onto the water so we could watch the gondolas floating past. Plus we got our own bathroom which is bit of a luxury in Venice.

We had a couple of really nice meals in the Santa Croce area too.

Venice is a bit renowned for ripping tourists off in restaurants. With over inflated prices, poor quality food and often short changing diners. So we made sure we did our research first. 

The quiet water ways of Santa Croce
On our first night, we ate at the Trattoria Alla Ferrata which we picked because it had an outside, walled garden area. I had a delicious clam and mussel starter, followed by a perfectly cooked beef Tagliata (which is sliced beef steak cooked on an open fire, served with rocket and balsamic vinegar), all polished off with a really good bottle of Chianti.

We also had a nice meal at Ostaria al Vecio Pozza. Their menu boasts 100 different types of pizza and it was pretty good too. Shame the waiter was so grumpy, but this is quite common in Northern Italy.

If you're staying in Santa Croce and want to take a gondola ride, you can do this from just outside the Piazzale Roma, however, they are unlikely to take you as far as San Marco square. 

We found the walk from Santa Croce to San Marco a pretty comfortable one and gave us a chance to wander through the streets, see the Grand Canal and Palazzo Ducale and cross all the bridges covered in padlocks where lovers have padlocked their love like the Ponte de Rialto, the Scalzi Bridge and the Ponte Dell'Accademia.

Taking a gondola ride from Piazzale Roma
And then, when you've done with the sight-seeing, leave it all behind and return to the calm of Santa Croce.

We drove to Venice from Bologna which took a couple of hours. We chose to park at the airport as parking can be expensive in Venice. The Marco Polo 2002 car park has 24 hour security guards and provide a free shuttle to the airport terminal for around 12 Euro a day. The bus into Venice (the ATVO) then costs around 5 Euro per person to Piazzale Roma.

2 January 2014

My 10 top tips for planning an italian wedding

It's been over three months since my wedding in Italy and I am finally sitting down to write about it.

Immediately afterwards, I just couldn't face it. After months of planning with my brain constantly saturated with things to do for the wedding, I didn't want to have to plan anything else. Even so much as putting a few words down on a keyboard.

However, on a wet and wild January evening it seems strangely appropriate to be thinking about that lovely warm day in September which seems a world away now.

Our wonderful wedding in Italy

I won't bore you with every detail. But I will say that, even with the stress, expense and worry, they were the best few days of my life. So I thought I would give you some of the top tips I have for surviving an Italian wedding. I hope you find them useful.

1. Even in Italy, it can rain
One of the main reasons we chose to get married abroad was the weather and the idea of getting married outside with the sun shining down on us. But you have to keep in mind that the weather might not go your way. In the two weeks leading up to our wedding day, I was obsessed with my weather forecast app on my phone. Constantly refreshing the feed as on our wedding day, it was due to rain in Tuscany. In fact, it was forecast for very heavy rain, with thunderstorms.

Getting married outside in Italy

Our venue had a banqueting hall which meant we could get married inside if it were to rain. So technically we were prepared. The issue was that I was not mentally prepared for it. All our planning had been done with the assumption that we would be outside. Our flowers and colour scheme had all been picked to benefit from a backdrop of rolling, green hills. Our dream wedding was not in a hall.

My advice, therefore would be - don't bury your head in the sand about the weather. It might rain and make sure you plan in case it does. Consider, will the flowers look as nice against paintwork as they would against greenery for example.

2. Don't become a tour guide
Our wedding was amazing because we had 50 of our friends and family in Italy with us for the best part of five days. But, if you do the same and hire a venue where your guests can all stay don't fall into the trap of becoming a tour guide.

It's great to help people organise things like flights, transfers, car hire and excursions during the week. And, you want to organise these things because you want your guests to have an amazing time. But it can get too much and you can become the go to person for all questions. On my wedding day, I was even asked whether I could find any fly spray because there was a large wasp in the villa and whether there were any more bin bags.

If I were you, I'd let your guests know that you're not there to solve all their problems. They can solve the dilemma of the large wasp all on their own.

3. If you have a great venue, it can do most of the hard work
We had this unbelievably glamorous place called Villa Di Ulignano in Tuscany which was equipped with a bar, swimming pool, barbecue area, cinema room, pizza oven, games room, table tennis table and sauna.

Our venue was an amazing back drop

It meant that there was lots of things for our guests to entertain themselves with over the five days. So there was less of a need for us to organise lots of day trips or activities. And, as the venue and grounds were so spectacular, they were the ideal backdrop to the proceedings. Everyone felt like they were staying someone special and all of photos look amazing as the villa was so beautiful.

4. Expect an Italian approach
We hired a wedding planner to help us. I'm a bit of a control freak which meant that I wanted to know exactly what was happening and when. However, my experience of things in Italy is that this is unlikely to happen (although I appreciate this might be my wedding planner).

We had a contract which detailed what we had paid for. And, although we had exchanged numerous emails detailing exactly what we wanted, this was never supplied to us as a "running order" for the day or as a complete package for what we should expect on the day. In fact, despite all the correspondence, most of it was actually organised the day before when we did the run through.

So don't expect a slick, well-run operation. Expect it to be pretty last minute, laid back and not exactly what you thought!

The view from my room as I got ready

5. Visit the venue beforehand
If you organise a wedding at home, no doubt you'd spend numerous weekends visiting different venues. However, unless you have lots of spare time and lots of spare cash, you're probably not going to be able to do this if you are getting married abroad.

We decided to go and visit the venue and it really did put our minds at ease. It also helped us to envisage how the day would run and where we wanted each of the elements of the day to take place.

6. Take time to talk to your photographer
This might sound obvious. But again, if you get married in the UK, you meet your photographer beforehand and have lots of face to face discussions about what you want your photos to be like and how you wanted to be treated on the day.

Our photos took forever

Our photographer was organised through the wedding planner. We hadn't met him beforehand. We hadn't spoken to him beforehand, We didn't know his name beforehand. In fact, I'm not 100% sure of his name now.

I'd put together lots of detail around the sorts of photos I wanted and I'd even put together a Pinterest mood board to help guide the photographer. And, on the day, I'd assumed this had been provided to the photographer. However, I don't think it had as he spent a lot of time taking the sorts of photos I didn't want. And, I'd specifically said that I didn't want to spend more than 20 minutes away from our guests getting photos of Adam and I and we were gone for over an hour. Standing in a field with crickets leaping around underneath my dress.

So, on the wedding day, don't assume that the photographer has read the brief. Make sure you sit down and reiterate what you want from him.

7. Drive over
I read lots of articles prior to my wedding about brides going postal on flights because they had to check their dress into the hold. We didn't have that hassle because my dress, the suits, most of the wedding decorations and the flower girl outfits were driven over. In fairness, not by us, but by my parents.

It meant my dress arrived without a crease and that we could bring lots of candles, confetti, lights and table decorations with us.

8. Bank on currency fluctuations
We did all the calculations for our wedding a year before we actually got married. Working out exactly what each element of the day was going to cost and what we could and could not afford.

What we didn't include in our calculations were potential currency fluctuations or the cost of getting the money to suppliers. During the year, the blessed pound became much weaker against the Euro meaning that our wedding cost us quite a bit more than we originally budgeted.

Our tip would be to pay for things in advance if the pound is strong or hold off if the pound is weak.

9. Where is the food travelling from?

It was lovely getting married outside in the sunshine

It was wonderful to be able to sit outside and have our wedding meal in the warm, tuscan evening air. It was exactly what we wanted and we feel truly lucky that the weather did its business for us.

What we hadn't thought about was where our guests would be dining and how far the food had to travel to reach them. Ours was about 500 yards. Which meant the poor waiters had to carry all the courses out on trays from the industrial kitchen in the villa to the tables. It meant that service was fairly slow and some of our guest's meals were cold by the time it reached them.

Don't get me wrong. Our food was delicious (all the meals we had in Tuscany were delicious). But, if I were to do it again, I probably wouldn't have chosen sea bass as there is nothing worse than luke warm fish.

The tables at our Italian wedding

10. Bring a great group of friends
The days around our wedding were like a five-day party. Not since school had I spent such a long period of time on holiday with a huge group of friends. And, although we both had a few sleepless nights worrying about whether everyone would get on (my mother had even asked me what we would do if there was a fight on our wedding day!).

It couldn't have been more of a dream. Everyone got on so well with each other whether from my side or Adam's. Every night, the bar was drunk dry, the swimming pool as used with and without clothing and the sauna was used on our wedding day by our suited and booted guests. Everyone was absolutely amazing and helped make our wedding truly special for us.

If you want to rent my friends and family to come to your wedding, I'm certain they would oblige.

The sun setting on our romantic wedding day