Friday, 31 January 2014


I threw a lot more than three coins into the Trevi (the largest Baroque fountain in the city full of Baroque fountains) and climbed the Spanish steps (Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti) - the widest staircase in Europe, men shoving roses in my face, and when it started to rain, umbrellas.    Staying at the D'inghiltera Hotel ( , where Keats, Byron and Shelley were inspired.   Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Sean Connery and Gadaffi's son.  Beautifully decorated by the family who own it (the mother), ask for a room on the fourth floor.  Funky and verging a bit on Philip Starke style.   It's Italian cool at it's best.  Try eat at the hotel restaurant Cafe Romano once for supper.  The deserts are too beautiful to eat but you will.   Say hello to Maximo the Concierge and Marco Milocco the general manager. He has lots of stories to tell but I'm not telling any of them - ever.

Florence is a third the size of Rome. You need so much more time here, but two days gives you a taster and you achieve more in January than you would in the Spring, Summer or Autumn.   It is incredibly inspiring.    You walk along a street and at the end of it there will be an ornate fountain, or statue, or beautiful church, gallery, museum and that's only in the first hour. The traffic of course is so bad it's comical, unless of course you get hit by one.  It is like one of those cartoons where everyone just misses each other but only just.

You can't do Rome in two weeks let alone two days, but don't try. You will spoil it if you do.  Ask the concierge for what you want. We wanted an unusual church and at the museum and crypt of the Capuchin Friars you get it.    The 17th century church has the bones of over 4000 friars which 'decorate' chapels in lamps, sculptures and mosaic like displays of flowers, geometric shapes and various religious symbols.    You have to go see to get the full picture but it is an extraordinary place to visit.   I'm not saying you should go see instead of Pompeii, the Vatican, the Trevi, but if you can go see.

Second day poured down with rain as hard as the fountains which are found at the end of each Roman road, street, avenue, lane, or so it seems.    The Pantheon a haven and quiet because of the heavy rains. It's circular so you tend to go round and round, looking up at the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.   Then the Piazza navona, and Vittoiano Monument and then the Sistine at the Vatican.   I forgot how before his time he was - and ours for that matter.    The contemporary art gallery before you reach the Cistine has Henry Moore and Dali as well as Francis Bacon doing a very unflattering portrait of a Pope, but then he did unflattering portraits of everyone didn't he?   Some artists only see beauty where others see ugliness.  Come to think of it, not just artists think that way.

We ate at La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali (www.latavernadeiforliiperiali) and La Taverna Trilussa (  You need to book  both. Both worth it.     Pasta perfect. Artichokes good in season, isn't everything?  You won't touch the muck at home after this place.  You will also be the size of a house by now.

Last stop The Colosseum -  which it was for a lot of others. Kept thinking of Russell Crowe (nearly wrote Brand, then Grant...wouldn't have been the same) doing his 'husband to a murdered wife..." speech. Twenty five million euros from the 'community' (as in European) our guide told us and the most magnificent roundabout in the world will be finished in ten years time.   Although it's not a roundabout now, which it what when I visited thirty eight years ago (ouch).     It's stunning and would be pocket money to the wealthiest in the world.   Mind you, they would probably turn it into a gladiator ring again wouldn't they?

Forget eat, pray, love.  Venice, Florence and Rome takes you on a much more intense journey if you let it.

This wonderful trip was care of Citalia (08437704443 who organise trips like this for just over a grand which includes bed and breakfast in all the hotels which are characterful as well as central, train fares, transfers and flights.


TAKE THE TRAIN TO FLORENCE FROM VENICE.  I've put that in capitals as the train in Italy is efficient, clean, on time, and a pleasure.   Don't drive or fly, take the train.  The fast train takes two hours.

In Florence, I didn't count the steps walking to the top of the Duomo.  I think I did the first time I did it, in my twenties, but now I enjoyed it and probably thanks to yoga was able to breathe while others half my age were huffing and puffing.  The views are phenomenal.  If Venice makes you think - it's a clever city, improbable, fairy-tale made real, better to visit than live in (I was told this by someone who lived there for ten years and he said the fog and the tides and the smell in the summer - ouch) but it's a living museum and magical. And I still remember that hot chocolate.

I visited the Bardini Gardens (, smaller and quieter than the Boboli, over the other side of the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio which you can only appreciate on it when you're not on it. This side is more residential, quieter, the energy there is more balanced, more meditative probably because of the gardens and lack of commerce but you walk up (you exercise a lot in Florence) to the gardens and the vistas overlooking the rooftops, the Duomo punching the skyline and the towers, with the Appennine mountains tracing the final horizon, make it a place you will sit and stare for longer than you have time for.

I visited the Accademia, and cried at the the sculpture of the Sabine women, the copy out in the Loggia dei Lanzi, the real thing in the gallery.    It's incredible, excellence in art and passionate. That's the word - passionate.   How can cold anaemic stone be passionate?  The sculpture by Giambologna is designed to be moved around, to walk around and you find yourself walking around the three bodies in perfect symmetry and balance, unlike in life.    Breathe in it, it's the first room you visit and although there are wonderful paintings around it and the rooms that followed I found myself wanting to return to that room over and over again. I bought a postcard. You cant' take photos of the real thing.     The David is awesome and I listened to the guides talking about it's artistic mastery but sorry, it was the Sabine which hooked me. And the Annunciation by Filipino in the same room.  I'm mentioning this because when I go again I want to see if I like the same ones.

The Uffizi is huge and overwhelming and thankfully due to foundations and individuals which support it, is in a continual state of renovation.   There is probably so much more in the vaults they don't show the public - actually I know there is, one of the guides who sat 'Mr Bean-like' in one of the rooms told me so.    The paintings by Lotti and Corregio of the mother and child were wonderful and left me dewy eyed. Could look at them for ages.   Bottichelli seems to fall in love with all those he paints and it shows.   Lotti and Corregio understand the mother/child connection and it shows.   They are in Rooms 71 and 88 at the moment although I'm told with all the renovation going on these may change.   I tend to stop and admire those paintings I like rather those paintings I'm supposed to like.    That's why I'm pleased I didn't have a guide, many of whom were with their Chinese followers.  Probably the same ones that nearly ran us over in Venice.

I didn't queue for the Accademia, Uffizi or the Duomo. In the Summer it goes on for hours although it did make me laugh when we were told at gate two to go to gate three and then to gate one if you pre book at the Uffizi.    Usually after the queues you are so resentful the quick tour round - jostled by other tourists, not able to get decent views of anything, make you feel the time and money wasn't worth it.   Go do Florence in January.   In January, not July.  And I kept thinking I would see Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Dench or Maggie Smith walk round a corner. I didn't, but I saw lots in their ilk.

San Lorenzo Market, especially the indoor bit with the food is fascinating for the pasta making and a cornicopia of raw ingredients you would find at many times in the price back in the UK.   And not of the same quality although I think we're getting better.

The hotel we stayed in The Brunelleschi ( which features in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, was a Byzantine tower and church.  The novel says DB stayed there but as far as the hotel manager is concerned he never did - the mystery thickens what what.  The place is a museum, built on a Roman bath and a womens prison no less, it has been beautifully restored; the sort of place that inspires you to not only return but try to introduce the same decor and style in your own home. Wonderfully central - five minutes walk from the Duomo, it has narrow cobbled roads surrounding it which somehow large taxis manage to navigate.  The architect who designed it Brunelleschi, also designed the Duomo.  There's a huge chandelier in one of the sitting rooms which the manager described as 'costing something like a fortune'. I like that.   All Murano glass.

Somehow like the food, the wine and the moment, the decor doesn't travel well.    We asked the concierge to choose a restaurant that doesn't have tourists.   He chose Hosteria da Ganino, and said he has to choose a different one each time to make sure he doesn't send different people on the same day.  They are 'bean eaters' in Florence.  Panzanella di pane e verdure is a typical dish of vegetable and bread salad but you will always and polp candito in olio d'oliva insalata di cannellini e pomodori secchi (octopus sauteed in olive oil, beans and dried tomatoes.

If Venice inspires the intellect, Florence heals the heart.    You romance yourself in this city, even if you don't have someone to hold hands with.

This wonderful trip was care of Citalia (08437704443 who organise trips like this for just over a grand which includes bed and breakfast in all the hotels which are characterful as well as central, train fares, transfers and flights.

Monday, 27 January 2014


Last time I visited was thirty five years ago. Hot, smelly and following a lady with an umbrella who kept running away from our group, I wasn't impressed by this place that allowed me to walk on water, well almost, and wonder why masks and glass were being sold everywhere.

Thirty five years on, in January rather than July, when the crowds are limited to the occasional stampede (and they do stampede) of Chinese tourists following a flag (their own not the red and gold of the Venetian), and you don't queue for anything and can get into even the smallest restaurant that has only five tables and waiters who look as though they have lived many lifetimes and all of them very interesting.

I will get up at 8.30 tomorrow morning when the tide is supposed to be very high, thereby potentially water logging the bottom floor of my hotel so that the lift has to stop at the first floor and everyone has room service for breakfast. I would have LOVED this as a child.  This acqua alta (high water) is happening more frequently when St Marco Square becomes flooded and you wear wellies (always trendy, this is Venice after all).

Everyone is a merchant in Venice but aware of their own fragility - it is sinking after all - they keep things light.  The masks are to hide behind, not just for partying and carnival, because Venice is a village where everyone walks and there is no escape, so everyone knows everyones business. There was (and is) the guide told me, more than one Casanova.  Isn't there always.   Strangely Elton John and Naomi Campbell have homes here and they don't come across to me as people who like their privacy invaded in anyway, but perhaps they change when here. And Johnny Depp is rumoured to be buying a place here.   It's an interesting city with a phenomenal history, but quirky with it. There is a street dedicated to a man who was a butcher and used the meat from babies.  Of course he was executed, but they named a street after him?

I've had fish every meal, except breakfast.  The restaurants are excellent.   Paradiso 0415234910,  Trattoria Alla Rivetta 041 5287302 and al Covo you need to book. They are the type of restaurants which film makers love and don't exist in real life. They exist here although there is so much fairy tale about Venice I'm not sure one could call living here 'real life'.

Our guide today (still don't know her name) made me laugh as she said she has two children and pushed them around in a buggy with the shopping (there are no supermarkets) up and down the steps of the bridges and became extremely strong.   "If anyone mugged me then I could have easily flattened them I grew so strong." Who needs Fitness First?

The Doge's Palace which we are five minutes walk from is beautiful and fascinating.   Take a boat tour for an hour and get a very good overview of the city. You will quickly get an idea of where things are, something which seems impossible when you first arrive.    I would highly recommend January in Venice. No crowds, weather is interesting whether the light is bright and blue (was on our first day) or silver grey (as on our second), and you can easily spend hours in the restaurants, eating fresh seafood and teasing yourself with a tiramasu if you must.   And drink the hot chocolate.  It is a must even if you have to forgo one of the tours, drink the chocolate.

This wonderful trip was care of Citalia (08437704443 who organise trips like this for just over a grand which includes bed and breakfast in all the hotels which are characterful as well as central, train fares, transfers and flights.


I am on a train trail, plane, train and no automobiles (and a bit of boat thrown in), starting off in Venice, then train to Florence, then Rome.  Three romantic cities and three journalists instead of three coins probably ending up in the Trevi on our last stop. The view from my room is exquisite.

Staying at the Londras Palace overlooking the water in Venice, with a phenomenal guide, woman - didn't get her name but I will - who told us about the history of Venice, how it was run more like a business, mostly capitalist, a bit of dictatorship and a smidgen of socialism. In fact, a bit how Maggie Thatcher wanted to turn the UK into where everyone was a merchant, everyone. Everyone knew everyone else's business - so think of living in a village mentality - but they are all bright, astute, and by the sounds of the history highly sexed - so perhaps more like a rural village than one might think. Everyone hid behind a mask, there were loads of spies everywhere, and everything happened in threes - one person checked up on another, who checked up on another who checked up on another.  Venetians invented threesomes. See what I mean about the rural village connection? There were loads of Casanovas - and the female equivalent, and if you were homosexual, the seducer was executed - not the one who had been forced into it.   It was rape, although rape wasn't a death penalty. Go figure.

Venice is slowly sinking. I saw it with my own eyes. There are what looks like tables everywhere but these are the things you stand and walk along to get into some of the buildings.    Something that happens once every thirty years is now happening daily so it is a place YOU MUST GO TO BEFORE IT GOES.   I think the powers should unite - or at least the top 5% of multi zillionaires or whatever they are now and try to rescue it although there are a lot more needy causes, it's just that this place is unique and incredible for so many reasons. The forward thinking, the thinking before their time, resonates everywhere from their art, to the way they did business, to politics.  The Doge, - the man in charge, wasn't paid, was elected from different families, only allowed to stay a year and had done every other job before he got that one and then would move on.    It prevented corruption but people got things done because they knew if they were being missold anything.  The Merchants of Venice in all walks of life here.   Yes, and everyone walks so there aren't many gyms.   And they weren't invaded till 1797, by Napoleon, who did a lot of damage, but until then they were excommunicated fifteen times from the Roman church as they wanted their own system, watching what they were doing in Rome  and realisingthe Church had too much power and was corrupt.    They invented prison (the French did not although they say they did) and the 'correction system'.    Although it was capitalist, in many ways it also encapsulated the idea of socialism that the reality of socialism rarely achieves.  Equality, food and water for everyone and everyone had a job and no one 'merchant' person was better than the other.    As I said, interesting and before it's time.  Makes me thinks aliens came here too.  

Visited the Doge's Palace which opened for the first time ever only yesterday. Incredible. Must must see. And the Main thoroughfare known as 'tourist highway' where you are literally knocked over by tourists. Come to the city in January. It is doable, cold, bright, but no crowds. In short, bliss. Last time I visited was over twenty five years ago, and it was crammed with groups following brollies and stunk and was hot.  January is bliss, just before carnival (although the mask wasn't invented for carnival, it was invented to 'hide behind'.   Will write more in articles but this city is heady mix of intelligent, creative, forward thinking, inspired (rather than inspiring) and very potently decadent.  It's an exquisite whispering sinning city, but it knows at what cost.  As though it's slowly enduring it's karma.   Perhaps that's why it's sinking.

Murano glass is everywhere but buy a hot chocolate (hot liquid chocolate, none of the powdered crap) on St Marco's Square, DO NOT SIT DOWN in a cafe. If you sit down you will be charged 10 euros. If you drink and stand up you will be charged one.  Be like a horse.  Which reminds me, it soon will be Year of the Horse. And a good one.  More to follow.  

Tuesday, 7 January 2014


I first met Simon Hoggart at the Richmond Literary Festival five years ago, when we had the hapless task of choosing the most important book of all time.   I was amongst formidable intellectual heavy weights. Best selling author Ann Sebba who chose Homers Odessy (my son seven at the time remarked he didn't know The Simpsons had written such an important book) and Jonathan Aitken found God again and put up the Book of Psalms as the ultimate tome.  

Simon wanted to talk about the Punch Book of the best Political Cartoons. I chose Winnie the Pooh, as it was the book I was reading to my son a lot at the time, and believing it crossed all genders, racial and religious barriers, truly universal and a best seller in Latin, it stood a chance.

No one wanted to be first, so Simon said he would.   He walked up to the podium to the room of eager and earnest literary Richmondites who were expecting heated and intellectual debate, and smiled.

"This book is not the most important book of all time, this is not even the most important book of this month or year, but I like it, so I'm going to talk about it."

From that moment on I loved him because like he always did, he took the pretention and pomposity out of every situation and every person he met, including politicians and politics.   He burst the bubble of illusion effortlessly, with grace and charm and he was an effervescent generous spirit with his time, his advice and his intellect.  He was one of life's givers.

I miss him as a friend even more than I will as a political commentator for which he was widely celebrated.  My heart goes out to his family.  He was a good friend and a good man. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014


I spent New Year in Malta at the Corinthia Hotel who were wonderful. It has an excellent spa which has soul as well as expertise which is unusual. I practiced yoga but also had reiki which was brilliant and just what I needed.    The sun shone while it poured down here and I tried white olives which allegedly are unique to Malta.    It was good.