Buying property in Italy

So much has happened since I last wrote here — but the big news is: we did it! We bought ourselves a home in Italy.

In all honesty, the buying process took just a bit more than six months, from the time we saw the apartment and put an offer in, to the time we received the keys, and I think the six months it took us was a relatively simple transaction.

We’d seen 10 or 12 different properties before we left Treviso in May of last year, but one in particular really appealed to us. Unfortunately, we were due to carry on with our trip down to Puglia, so with a great deal of reluctance, we packed up, and got on the train. I had tears in my eyes as we left. I felt like I was leaving great friends, a lovely town I could live in — but to be honest, we were on holiday, we had other things to do, places to go, things to see.

Monopoli in Puglia is lovely, but I felt like I was comparing it to Treviso all the time. We spent some lovely days visiting coastal pools, lazing around, exploring. But at night, I couldn’t stop thinking about that apartment.

About a week later, at 4am, I was laying in bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking about the apartment. I knew the husband was awake too. Finally he asked me: are you still thinking about that place too? And we knew right then that it was the right place for us.

I told him that I’d bookmarked the name of a solicitor in Melbourne who specialised in the purchase of French and Italian properties for Australians, and we waited till the appropriate hour and called him. He was wonderful, and was happy to negotiate the purchase on our behalf.

The first thing we had to do was go and get Codice Fiscali, or a personal tax code for each of us, as its impossible to open a bank account without one. Getting a Codice Fiscale is fairly easy, they’re more than happy to issue a tax code, more than happy for foreigners to pay tax. A mere hour spent waiting in a dismal public office, and we had those pieces of paper.

The next thing was to get an Italian back account. Not so easy. We tried a couple of different national banks. Finally, one told us it would be fine, we spent several hours handing over all kinds of ID, filling in multiple forms, handing over our newly minted Codice Fiscali… then we were told to come back in a few days to pick up our account cards. Easy! Or so we thought.

We returned and were told, no, they weren’t ready. We returned again a few days later and were told simply ‘we are unable to open an account for you’. No explanation. So we tried a different bank, went through the whole process again, and then, in exasperation, we were advised to open the account in the town where we wanted to buy. Makes sense I suppose.

So we flew back to Treviso. The following day we walked into the largest bank in the middle of town, and asked if we could open an account, and half an hour later, we were the proud owners of an Italian bank account (for foreigners). Complete with cards, internet banking, the whole lot. Yay!

That afternoon we went back and surprised the Immobiliare (real estate agent) who had showed us around all those properties, and asked to see the one we liked once more. We told ourselves to be critical — but we both loved it even more.

One more phone call to our solicitor, and we got the ball rolling, he then took over, negotiating on our behalf. We wanted to keep the kitchen, and discovered that some of the furniture was to be included. Our offer was accepted the day before we left for Rome, to fly home.

Normally in Italy, the buyer appoints a Notary of their choosing who works on behalf of the owner AND the buyer in the transfer of sale. In our case, we had our solicitor in Melbourne who appointed a local Notary whom he knew and trusted, and who we knew wasn’t working for the owner or the agent. He speaks fluent Italian and was able to read through all the documentation and assure us everything was in order.

The scariest thing for us was that because the apartment is in a historic building, the Italian version of the Historic Houses Trust had to be notified of the sale. They have the option to buy the property before us at the price we’ve negotiated, and have 60 days to respond – however, and here’s the clanger: the buyer pays the full purchase price to the vendor but does not get to enjoy the property while the Historic Houses Trust makes up their mind. The money is not held in Trust. The buyer just has to wait the 60 days. In our case, we were reassured by our solicitor that since our apartment had changed ownership several times in the last 15 years and the HHT had already declined the purchase several times, we knew with 99.9% certainty that they would not exercise their right to buy. And they didn’t.

Finally it was ours.

We were very fortunate that we were able to ask the estate agent to help us transfer the utilities into our names, and help us get them connected. He didn’t have to do this, but was a great help to us in doing it for us.

At the end of November, we received the keys, and early in December, after a long flight, we opened the door to our Italian home.

 

 

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How do Italian women stay so slim?

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I ponder this question every time I’m there.

Certainly the portion sizes are much smaller than they are here. And the food is most definitely tastier… but you’d think that with the food being so much fresher and more tasty that it would be easy to overeat. So how do they stay so slim?

One thing I really noticed when I came back to Australia this time was the bombardment of food and diet analysis in the media. First this diet is supposed to be better. Then they demonise fats. Then that diet is better. Then its not fats, but carbs that are the enemy. There’s the Paleo bandwagon. The Gluten-free bandwagon. The Clean-Eating bandwagon… take your pick. It seems that every day there’s some new slant on losing weight and staying slim.

I don’t see that in Italy. I see people just eating real food. And enjoying it. Taking real pleasure in it.

Example 1. In Italy, one morning at my favourite bar, I saw a group of ladies meet up for a morning coffee. A couple of them were wearing gym clothes, perhaps they’d been playing tennis or walking, but they weren’t sweaty. Another lady arrived on a bicycle, and two others joined them on foot. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning. I was going through my vocabulary list, sipping espresso and people watching… I noticed they all started with an espresso, but as the hour wore on they went straight to Prosecco. It wasn’t even midday! You’d never see that in Sydney!! It would be unthinkable here. I watched carefully… they only ordered one each and made it last, (some ordered mineral water too) then they went about their day.

In contrast, I often go for a 7km walk with friends here in Sydney, but I’m almost certain that if I suggested going for a drink (an alcoholic drink) afterwards they would look at me sideways, I would be relegated to the pile of sad alcoholic chubsters and pointed in the direction of AA. Which is kinda strange, because we all enjoy a drink on the weekend.

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this was lunch one day in Venice. The panino was tiny but delicious. Truffled mortadella and a glass of unfiltered Prosecco.

Example 2. We were in a pizza restaurant in Rome. It was lunch time, mid week. Sitting across the aisle from us were two young women, I’d say in their early 20’s. Clearly Italian, not tourists. They ordered a pizza, and when it came, they reached for the olive oil (locally produced, fresh, and unfiltered) and drizzled it over the top. Unthinkable. I’m almost certain that any young Aussie woman would shun the extra olive oil with a barge pole (see my earlier comment about fat being the enemy).

So what did I do? I too, drizzled my pizza with olive oil… and you know what? it was delicious. The oil was cloudy, peppery, earthy and completely brought that pizza to life.

Here, in Sydney, if I’m eating out during the day, the usual dish that my friends (and I) would choose is a salad, with no dressing. Maybe with grilled chicken or fish. Or soup. No bread. No flavour. No life. Its just sad. Never with a glass of bubbles or wine because we have to drive everywhere and can’t risk a drink.

Are we such a bunch of puritans that we can’t enjoy real flavourful food without fear of gaining a kilo or being labelled alcoholics? Or is it just because our days are ruled by the car? Or is it cost? Or do we all save our calorie splurges for the weekend?

Here’s the thing. I notice when I eat out in Italy that the food is so fresh, so tasty and flavourful that there’s just no need to eat too much of it in order to feel satisfied. One can feel satisfied with a much smaller portion because it is so delicious. Its possible to have just one glass of prosecco or wine and stop there, because its deliciously satisfying.

In Italy its possible to sit outside in a lovely piazza or in a lovely bar and drink a glass of Prosecco with your meal without having to step into a windowless pub, a place made for men. And the other big thing I noticed is that this kind of pleasure is taken in combination with the daily walk or after cycling into town. The lovely Italian ladies I saw were all doing some form of exercise, all working it into their every day lives. When I go for a hike (or to the gym) I have to drive there because thats where the gym is located, or thats where the dedicated walking or cycling paths are, and so that I can run my errands afterwards, but it kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it?

There are certainly more gluten-free options available than before, but on the whole Italians don’t seem to demonise any particular food or drink. They don’t seem to jump on the latest fad diet. I notice their portions are much smaller than ours, but generally of much higher quality. They just eat real food. Good quality food. Not loads of it. And no junk. Why would you bother with artificially flavoured junk when real food tastes so much better?

I’ve tried to incorporate these things I noticed into my life here. I try to source the best possible ingredients that I can afford, and to incorporate exercise into my every day life, and ditch the car when I can…. but its tough. Our landscape is dominated by the car and the supermarket. It can be very difficult to source locally produced unprocessed food (like the unfiltered olive oil I tried) here in Sydney. And we have designated places to exercise which we must drive to. But its interesting to note the differences and to learn from them.

It makes me wonder about the so-called Mediterranean Diet the media talks about. I think its more than just the constituent ingredients that makes the diet so good. It has to do with building towns that are conducive to easy walking or cycling, that have easy access to fresh local produce at frequent farmers markets. Towns that have nice places to gather with friends. Its interesting that scientists think its all to do with constituent ingredients or even just the diet ~ because I think it ought to be called the mediterranean lifestyle… and unless we rebuild our cities it will never really be replicated in the new world.

what do you think?

 

How to choose an Italian town

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Hello again! I can’t believe its been six months since I last wrote here. Its been a little crazy busy here. My son moved away to university, and my husband negotiated two months off work and (of course) we decided to spend that time in Italy, so we (ahem, I) very quickly had to plan out a trip, find accommodation, book planes, trains and a car and so on… and then of course we were away for two, whole, long, lovely months in the bel’ paese.

Thankfully we’ve done enough longish trips to Italy before and knew the drill: knew who to fly with and what to pack and so on, and I have a go-to list of reliable accommodation websites. That part wasn’t difficult.

But… Italy has so many wonderful towns and places, and we often use our trips to ‘try out’ towns, and ask ourselves: “could we live here?”. How to decide where to stay? How to decide where to base yourself when you’ve ‘done’ all the main towns?

I pored over the map for days, and couldn’t decide where we should spend our time. North…? Mountains…? Sea…? City…? We couldn’t decide.

I started thinking about this dilemma, and realised I’d have to start with what we knew we liked.

We wanted a town that had a good weekly market. It had to have some life to it, have an active community. It had to be well serviced by public transport. This is really important to us, because we’d want to be able to go and visit other places too. It had to have enough residents, restaurants or bars that something would be open on a Sunday. And I wanted people to speak to me in Italian, not English.

A total bonus would be that someone in the town offered language courses, there would be an Apple Computer shop, and my husband wanted a guitar shop nearby. Maybe even a fabric or sewing shop too. A girl can dream.

Eventually, I realised that the towns we’ve really liked in the past that have most of those things ~ Lucca, for example ~ have had a population of about 100,000. So I started looking at towns with similar population sizes, and seeing if I could find one that was similarly well connected… and i came up with Treviso.

Treviso has 87,000 residents, of which only about 8,000 live inside the city walls. It has its own train station just outside the walls, and its own airport. Venice is only 25 minutes away by train, you can get a high-speed train from Venice to just about anywhere, and Venice has its own international airport too. I liked that the Dolomites and the sea are both nearby. Treviso had never popped up on my tourist radar before, and a little research told me that it doesn’t have any major attractions of its own, so therefore (I hoped) not many tourists or crowds, though it does have two rivers running through it, so it looked quite pretty. Its just a quietly prosperous town, going about its own business. Perfect!

I found a holiday apartment and booked it. Off we went. Husband decided that on the third week he’d like to go back to England to visit his family, and I decided to attend a language school while he was away. I fronted up, introduced myself, and enrolled, and in the meantime we got busy acquainting ourselves with Treviso. We rented le biciclette (bikes) and cycled around town, around the walls. Outside the walls. Followed the river. Pretended to be Trevignani.

We discovered that there are not one, but TWO huge weekly markets! One on Saturday and another on Tuesday, both open until 1pm. Woohoo! There are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, and many are open on Sundays, and there’s even a supermercato! Wow! Bliss!

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The medieval walls of Treviso.

The medieval walls only still exist on the northern side, although there are small stretches on the western and eastern sides. The walls are tall and wide and have trees growing on them, rather like a park, and you can wander through the town and suddenly come across the rivers flowing fast. Lovely!

The commune have built extensive cycling paths through and around town, and just recently have created a dedicated 70km cycling path that runs all the way to Jesolo, the beachside town just north of Venice. No cars. No traffic. Just bikes. An active commune! Fabulous!

Even more exciting and challenging was that the shopkeepers of Treviso spoke to me in Italian. Fabulous! Another tick!

So… we started looking at properties for sale.

Exciting times.

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Train travel in Italy

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Most of the time when we travel around Italy we take the train. Flying from Australia, we don’t usually have the option to fly into the city of our choosing, we have to fly into either Milan, Rome or Venice, and while those cities are great places, we usually want to go somewhere else too. The train is faster and safer than driving, particularly after a 22 hour flight when we’re likely to be exhausted. That’s not to say that we don’t rent cars — we often do — its just that we don’t often use a car to get us across the country.

When we started travelling around Italy, we’d typically turn up at the station (as you would in Australia) and book our ticket on one of those self-serve machines, usually one way, and we’d simply take the next arriving train, assuming that the price and speed would roughly be the same on each train. Not so!

In Italy, buying a train ticket is a bit like buying a flight. The price you pay for your ticket reflects the speed and the quality of the train, and how far in advance you buy the ticket. That is, the cheapest way to get from point A to point B is to book ahead, on the slowest, least comfortable train. But, as a tourist, sometimes the cheapest price is not the best.

We once turned up at the station and bought tickets from Venice to Milan, but then we noticed that there was a train departing for Milan earlier than our ticket showed, so we jumped on, not realising that that next train was a regional train. It had no air conditioning, hard seats, and stopped at just about every single stop along the way. The whole trip took us something close to 5 hours (instead of 2 hours and 45 minutes) and in the time that we were on that train we were passed by not only the train that we should have been on but at least 4 other high speed trains that departed after us and arrived in Milan before us. What made it worse was that we had actually paid for tickets on the high speed train, but used them on the regional train. Had we actually bought a ticket for the regional train that we actually travelled on train we probably would have saved €20 or so per person. But we’d purchased a fast train ticket and wasted a whole day sitting in a hot, uncomfortable train that smelled of… well, you can imagine. It was bone-crunchingly awful. We should have waited half an hour and gotten on the train we’d purchased the ticket for, that we’d selected on the machine.

What you’ll find is that if you’re prepared to travel on a regional train (or even part of the journey on a regional train) the price will be lower when compared to the high-speed Freccia (Arrow) trains. But you have to take care to look.

For example, looking at the trenitalia.com website today, there are currently two prices to travel by train from Rome to Treviso on the 1st of May: €42.30 and €52.30. The cheaper fare takes 4 hours and 44 minutes, the more expensive fare takes 4 hours and 2 minutes. That is, paying €10 more means saving 42 minutes of travelling time.

Screen shot TrenItalia.com

But: that’s the price I would pay if I booked the ticket today. If I book the ticket on the day, the price is likely to be much higher. Did you know that? I did not! For example, if you selected that same €52.30 trip on the day it could be as much as €80 (in second class, and if second class is sold out, it could cost you €109) if all the cheaper inflexible tickets are sold out. And, in fact, when I select the 10.35am train which costs €52.30 it shows me that there was an even cheaper fare which has already sold out. So… in addition to choosing the slower train we’ve learnt that the cost of the ticket is cheapest the further ahead you book. But beware: the cheapest fares are non-refundable, and not transferrable. This can be very expensive if you miss that train.

There are usually 3 options in each class on each inter-city train; the Super Economy (which is unchangeable) the Economy (which can be transferred) and the Base fare (which can be transferred and refunded). Obviously First Class costs more than Second, but it is possible — if you book ahead and are prepared to waive the right to change your ticket — to travel First Class for less than the cost of Second Class. Yes, its complicated!

So, I’ve learnt to book ahead; I almost always choose the fastest train, but not necessarily the cheapest ticket on that train. The other thing to remember is that Trenitalia only allows you to buy your train ticket 3 months in advance, and you must have the printed ticket with you on the train for the inspector to see. You can also choose your seats. My recommendation is to look at the train plan and choose seats close to the luggage rack ~ although this isn’t always possible as its position isn’t always clear.

Another mistake I made several years ago was to buy the ticket (at the station) and have the machine auto-select our seats. What a mistake. The train was full when we got on, and we were travelling with our son plus three large pieces of luggage…  we discovered very quickly that our seats 17A, 17B and 17 C were on three different carriages. Fortunately a lovely young Italian man was happy to swap his seat up for mine so I could be with my young son, but we had no real idea of where my husband was sitting. This is another good reason to buy your ticket in advance, and select the seat yourself. Check that your seats are on the same carriage, as seat numbers will repeat for each carriage. (Tip: Carrozza = carriage)

One more thing. Apparently buying a train ticket using the TrenItalia website triggers a fraud warning at some of our Australian banks. Well, it does at my bank. Within seconds of booking a train ticket I usually get a text message from my bank advising me that they’re freezing all my accounts until I call and confirm that its me buying the ticket!

Having finally learnt from all my mistakes, I now find train travel in Italy to be a very comfortable, very fast and safe way to travel across the country.

If you want to read more about taking the train around Italy I can recommend Tim Parks lovely book called Italian Ways. He describes his various train trips to and from work, and around the country, and the crazy logic of the ticket buying system. Its a lovely read to get you excited before a trip.

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I must say I’m no expert on trains in Italy, if anyone has any more tips please leave a comment ~ I’d be very grateful!

What to pack for one month travelling around Italy in November/December.

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So we’ve just come back from one month of travelling around bel’ Italia. From mid-November to mid-December, we visited: Rome, Bracciano, Semproniano (in southern Tuscany), Florence, Bolzano (in the Alps) to see the Christmas markets, then back to Rome for a couple of days before we flew home. We travelled mostly by hire car and train.

It was quite a few moves in one month, and our luggage had to be small enough to be able to move easily and fit into the boot (trunk) of a rental car, but large enough to fit a change of seasons clothes plus the bits and pieces we bought along the way.

Firstly, when it comes to luggage, we ALWAYS buy luggage on wheels. Always. It means I can trundle along behind my husband and can handle my own bags. If our son is travelling with us it means he can handle his own luggage himself too. Being the frugal people we are (ok, cheapskates) I usually go to the Chinese markets in Sydney and buy ultra cheap luggage. I don’t expect it to last long; it usually only lasts two or three trips and then it needs to be replaced.

This trip, we dragged our grubby tatty luggage with us all around Italy… but towards the end of our trip (when the bags were at their heaviest) we noticed the zippers splitting open, and thought they might not last the flight home.

Cheap luggage isn’t easy to find in Rome ~ and it isn’t cheap. So we indulged ourselves. We went into La Rinascente and bought ourselves new Delsey luggage. I chose Delsey on the recommendation of several friends who work as flight attendants. What a revelation it is to have proper, well-made luggage! The wheels roll and turn so easily its no longer hard work to drag or push the bag along. The insides are lined with light coloured lining, which makes it really easy to see where everything is.

We bought the largest size they had, which does mean its tricky to fit two cases into the trunk of a taxi or hire car. When totally fully packed (as ours were when we flew home) they checked in at around 30 kilos each. We’re fortunate to have extra baggage allowance with our frequent flyers club, so while the weight wasn’t and issue for us on this trip, it could be a problem if your baggage allowance is only 20 kilos. And of course its simply too large and heavy for budget european airlines, some of which only allow 11 or 16 kilos. So with hindsight, perhaps the second largest size would have been better.

Delsey Helium Trolley Case

And then, there comes the packing itself.

Finally, I think I’ve got it cracked. I wore everything I took, I wasn’t overloaded with useless things… everything was practical, easy to wash and wear, and comfortable without being slobbish.

I took 3 pairs of pants – one pair of dark grey slim fit jeans. One pair of slim-fit black ponte pants, and one pair of Lululemon hiking leggings. All with a a little bit of stretch.

I took 5 tops –  3 of them were long-sleeved, 1 was short, and one was a more dressy drape style. I could have done with one more lighter top as it was unseasonably warm in November when we got to Rome, but it was cheap enough to buy a lightweight top.

I took 2 pairs of shoes. Yes, just TWO pairs. I took a pair of mid-heeled ankle boots which I wore through the airports because they slip on and off easily, (and they go with all the skinny leg pants I’d taken) and a pair of super-ugly but ultra comfortable walking boots. I took the walking boots because we did lots of long hikes. If you’re not hiking, then I’d probably swap them out for something like Converse style sneakers. However my walking boots totally saved my feet, and really were essential for me since the bones in my foot are still healing from the surgery I had. I thought I’d really stand out as a tourist in them but the thing to remember in Rome — and indeed in most of Europe — is that most Europeans don’t drive everywhere like we do, they walk everywhere, so they all generally wear low-heeled comfortable shoes themselves. Granted, they are usually italian made and really beautiful.

I took 2 coats and 1 cardigan. Right now in Italy everyone is wearing puffer jackets. Fortunately one of the coats I took was a black puffer style jacket. The other was a heavier, water-resistant style coat, which I have to say I didn’t wear as much as I thought I would. The cardigan I only wore a few times, but it was handy. The puffer jacket and the cardigan could both be layered under the larger coat if needed.

I took 3 ultra-thin Heattech thermal layers that I’ve previously blogged about here http://wp.me/p4jE2L-Q that I bought from Uniqlo. I took a camisole, a short-sleeved and a long-sleeved one, and a pair of their leggings to layer underneath pants, though I have to say it wasn’t really cold enough to warrant the leggings, but they also double as tights to wear with my flying dress. They are super thin and take almost no space at all.

I took 2 scarves, and wore one with my simple black shirtdress on the flight. I also took 1 woollen beanie, one pair of gloves and a fold-up umbrella. And a cheap swimsuit – which I used in one of the thermal springs.

As for socks and underwear – I only ever take a weeks supply, but we always rent apartments which usually have a washing machine in them.

And that’s it. I didn’t take a hairdryer, but I did take my straightening iron. Next time I probably won’t take it.

Packing light means there’s space in your luggage to buy a few lovely Italian things. x

 

Packing for Italy in November, starting with comfy shoes.

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Hello again…. I think I’ve finally (almost) completely organised our next trip to bel’italia. I managed to find a lovely apartment in the Ghetto area of Rome for the first part of the trip. It was very reasonable, although I think it has no windows facing outwards onto the street ~ which for some people would be a problem, but I don’t mind one bit, as it will mean no road noises. Then we’ll be renting a car and travelling northwards. I’m not sure how sensible it is to pick up a rental car from Rome and then try to drive out… but I’ll let you know.

I’ve never been anywhere in Lazio other than Roma, so this is our opportunity to see whats out there, so to that end we’re staying near the little lake Bracciano, about 45 km’s from Rome.

I had a little chuckle to myself when I looked at it on the map. Its 45km’s from Rome, well in the countryside. About the same distance from the CBD in Sydney you’d still find yourself in the outer Sydney suburbs. Anyway, I found a lovely little apartment in Bracciano near the lake. After that, we hope to spend a little time in the Maremma (northern Lazio/southern Tuscany) so that we can visit the thermal springs in Saturnia and le Vie Cave, and the abandoned town of Montemerano. After that we have a week in Florence, then… well, I’ll leave the rest as a surprise.

This trip we’re scouting a little, as we hope to spend a few months in Italy next year, and I suspect that northern Lazio might be a good place to be, being so close to Rome, and close(ish) to Florence too. Funny how us Aussies have such a different concept of what constitutes ‘close’.

Anyway… I’ve started thinking about what to pack for this trip too, as it will be cool in November, and this being Italy there will be lots and lots of walking. Actually I suppose we should be prepared for anything at that time of year. With the bones still healing in my broken foot I will be restricted to flat and very comfortable shoes, and clothes that are comfortable and easy to wear, and that don’t need a shoe with a heel. Luckily I have a really comfy pair of flat soled boots ~ which have already made the trip to italy once before. But I think I might have to invest in a pair of comfortable and stylish italian shoes when I get there. Happily Rome is the place where I can find a shoe that is both comfortable AND stylish.

Maybe ten years ago I bought a pair of Nero Giardini shoes in Rome. They were unlike anything I had ever seen before, but I noticed that lots and lots of italian women wore them. Styled like fashionable shoes, but built and soled like trainers. With a bit of a heel. Perfect for negotiating cobbled streets and walking all day long.

I know there are sneakers and trainers with heels out there now, but I’ve yet to try on a pair that are as comfy as those Nero Giardini shoes were. They looked fabulously good on the italian women, particularly on those who aren’t teenagers any more. Nothing like those dreary Homy-Peds, and not like I’ve stolen my daughters shoes either. I’ve only just thrown them away, so my first shopping expedition in Rome will be to find a replacement pair.

I just searched the Nero Giardini website and here are my two choices. I hope they still have some in stock when I get there!

Nero Giardini trainer

These don’t look so stylish in the photo, but are fairly similar to the ones I had. Its not so easy to see, but they’re actually quite finely made. And I like the little bronze details.

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These are so cute too! I’d be happy with either pair, although these are maybe more fashionable.

Can’t wait!

 

Italy in November

I’ve been snowed under lately, planning and booking our next trip to Italy in November. Who’d have thought it would be so difficult to make all these decisions?!

We booked our flights to Rome without thinking too much, and now I have the blissful pleasure of a month to explore. So far the plan is to spend a 10 days in Rome, then hire a car and drive to Florence, stopping for a few days here and there along the way… and this is where I run into trouble.

I know it would be easy to just turn up and find somewhere to stay… but I like to stay in places with something special about them… so I spend ages bookmarking interesting places to stay on Air B&B and VRBO and HomeAway.co.uk. I always check on GoogleMaps how long it would take to drive from apartment to nearest town or the last town we’d be coming from, and rule out anywhere too far out of the way. I always carefully check the photos, cross-check the reviews on TripAdvisor and do Google searches by image of the apartments, just in case they’re reviewed somewhere else, just to be sure that the place really is what it says it is.

Maybe I’m a control freak… but…

I found a room in a renovated fortress tower… it boasted great views and lovely breezes, it would be perfect in summer but with no heating in winter, brrrrrr… (definitely bookmarked for a summer trip)
and a fantastic lake-side apartment on Bracciano lake — with a fabulous view and mini fridge but with no kitchen…
I found a couple of great apartments where the nearest place to park the car is a paid parking lot 1/2 a kilometre away…
and another great apartment in the countryside… where the nearest place to buy food was a 20 minute drive each way…

There are hundreds — if not thousands — of great family run Agriturismo’s (farm stay places) dotted around the countryside. They all boast beautiful swimming pools and sun loungers, and photos of warm countryside… but we won’t be swimming or sunbathing in winter.

There are literally thousands of stunningly beautiful villas to rent… for 6, or 8, or 12 or more people… great for large families or joint holidays… but its almost impossible to book a self-catering cottage for just two people.

Sigh. I’m not complaining. Its a lovely problem to have.

Beauty essentials to take on a long haul flight

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I had coffee last week with a dear friend of mine who was flying to Stockholm the following day. She told me she was absolutely dreading that flight. Not because of the terrible events of last week, but just for the thought of having to sit, cramped up in economy for 22 hours, and arriving feeling dirty, tired and clogged up.

I told her I had just been re-stocking my in-flight bag and I was actually looking forwards to the next flight so that I could try some of the goodies I’ve put in it. She was intrigued, so we did a little shop together to help get her in the mood.

Firstly, here in Sydney, we almost always have a relative humidity above 75%. That means that a little moisturiser goes a long way. Europe is not the same. In fact I’m always amazed because I usually have fairly oily skin and hair and so the first few times I packed for Europe my toiletries were all oil-free, dry-shampoos and so on… I’ve since learnt that 22 hours on a plane will completely dry me out, and I’ll be in desperate need of moisturising products when I arrive.

So the first stop for me is always Aesop. A few years ago my husband bought me one of their travel packs — I think mine was the London one, filled with little travel sized versions of their products. Some of the products I absolutely loved and have re-purchased, others, not so much… but the thing I most like about Aesop is that they’re very generous with their free samples. And they’re what I take on-board with me. The rest of the kit goes in my luggage.

photo 2-2

Either before I board or as soon we reach altitude and the seat-belt sign is off I take all my make up off, using Aesop’s Parsley Seed Oil Cleanser. Its gorgeous ~ but beware: it’s not a particularly viscous oil. The first time I ripped open the little sachet I spilt the entire contents onto my leather handbag. I thought it would stain the leather, but it didn’t. Fortunately it smells lovely and they’d given me several.

Then I apply their Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum, or their Parsley Seed Facial Treatment. I love everything about both of these products, especially the smell. They always makes me feel calm and relaxed and ready to sit back and read my book. These are actually products that I would buy and carry with me ~ and trust me, I won’t carry anything that I don’t have to ~ but one of these is worth carrying. The Treatment comes in a tiny 15ml bottle, so no need to decant, but my preference is for the Serum. I’ll almost always carry their tiny tube of moisturiser on board with me too.

They’re very clever offering these little sachets… I’ve tried various products and returned and bought the ones I like, and each time I buy something, they give me more sachets to try, and I usually find something else to come back and buy… so I always seem to have a little stash of sachets to take on a flight with me. Gotta love that!

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But getting back to my flight list… There are a few other things I cannot fly without. Lip balm would be one. I love the Burts Bees ones, specially the tinted ones, as they have a slight minty fragrance. I know it sounds stupid, but I almost always find that I chip or break a nail when I’m handling my luggage, so I have to have a nail file with me. I buy a cheap pack of those disposable nail files before I leave and keep one or two in my clear plastic baggy.

The other must-haves for me are eye lubricating drops and nose lubricating spray. I have terrible sinuses, and almost always find I end up with a sinus headache and puffy eyes from dry blocked sinuses. Yes, it’s a bit hard to do discretely, but not impossible, and believe me, it makes a difference to how you feel on arrival. A mini hairbrush, my own toothbrush and toothpaste is essential… and I always carry an eye patch and ear-plugs too, in the hope that I might get some sleep… and I do find they help. I might also take a mini deodorant too, particularly if I’m transiting through a hot city like Singapore.

I wear the bare minimum of make up when I fly, but I always take a BB cream, mascara and one lipstick to apply before I arrive. My current fav BB cream is Uvidea XL by La Roche Posay because I like the texture & coverage, and that it comes in a flight-friendly 30ml tube. I almost always take a concealer too, usually Touche Éclat by YSL. Those are my makeup absolute minimums. Except for the hairbrush I can actually fit all of these things into one of those little clear plastic baggies, which double as insurance against spillage. Bonus!

But, to be honest, I think the most important things that really make a difference to how you feel when you arrive can’t be bought or packaged. They would be to drink as little alcohol as possible, but as much water as you can manage, and to get as much sleep as you possibly can. And when you’re in the airport, don’t take the travelator, get up and walk as much as possible. Stretch your muscles and move. Knowing exactly where you have to go to get into town or wherever you’re going can ease your anxieties about arriving, so ALWAYS have printed out and ready the address and directions for your next destination.

If you can arrive with a smile in your mind you’ll always look your best.

Anything I’ve forgotten? What do you take with you on-board?

  • Parsley Seed Oil Cleanser
  • Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum or Treatment
  • Lip Balm
  • Lubricating eye drops
  • Lubricating nose spray
  • Mini hair brush, nail file, toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Eye Patch & ear plugs
  • BB Cream
  • Mascara, lipstick & concealer
  • mini deodorant

Umbrian bean soup

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Since its winter here in Sydney, my thoughts always turn to soup. I don’t know about you, but I’m totally over pumpkin soup, Thai spiced, roasted or not, and empty-the-fridge-of-old-vegetables soup too. Instead, I’m far more interested in recreating the lovely Tuscan Ribollita that I tried several years ago in Lucca, or, more recently, the Umbrian bean and farro soup that I had in Spoleto. I know, it sounds awful, but believe me, it was sooo delicious that I’m still dreaming about it.

We found ourselves in Spoleto on a particularly crisp but bright winters day after looking at some apartments for sale nearby. It was at about 2pm early in January and hardly anything was open, hardly anyone was around, and we were hungry. Fortunately we were told to head towards the Roman Arch and then a few doors along we’d find a little restaurant called Il Tempio del Gusto. What a find! Located very near the Roman arch/gate of Drusus and Germanicus, (which happens to date from 23C.E.) it was a warm and welcome sight.

Arco di Druso e Germanicus

I ordered the Umbrian bean soup and my husband ordered a pasta dish, but we were treated to tastes of various starters, sides and desserts that were all absolutely delicious, so that we ended up being treated to a lighter version of a three-course meal. It was wonderful! However, the star dish for me was their bean soup. I seem to remember it having lashings of really soft, well-cooked beans, farro & vegetables, and a slightly smoky flavour, with a good fine grating of parmesan and swish of truffle oil over the top. It was sublime. I recommended the place to a friend of mine who also raved about it on her return. I loved that in the lower rooms ~ which are below street level ~ you can see the remains of the Roman foundations and walls that the restaurant has been built within. Its quirky, but the food is fab. If you’re ever in Spoleto, I recommend it highly.

I’ve searched and searched the interwebs since then to try to find a recipe that resembled that soup. I could only find one in English that seemed close ~ but was missing the slightly smoky bacony element. I had better luck searching in italian, for zuppa fagiolini di umbria. The recipes all seem to contain dried beans and a simple soffritto and passata; some recommend using italian lardo (lardo is very much like a block of solid fat that is cured like and maybe cut off a lump of prosciutto) as the oil/flavouring to sauté the vegetables in. Some recipes add diced potatoes, some add mushrooms or green beans. In my opinion, recipes are only a guide.

beans

This recipe is similar:  http://www.leitv.it/cambio-cuoco/ricette/la-zuppa-umbra-ricetta-regionale-ricca-di-cereali-e-di-sapore/

The soup I had in Spoleto definitely had mushrooms and possibly cabbage, but I don’t think it had potato. Instead of using the lard (which is impossible to find in my part of Sydney) I decided to make my own stock with some smoked bacon bones the day before I made the soup.

I say ‘I made’ the stock; but seriously, I hardly did a thing to make it. I simply threw the bones into a large oven-proof dish along with a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns and the leafy tops of a bunch of celery, covered it all in water, and I put the dish into the just warm 110°C oven overnight to let it all simmer away overnight. A slow cooker would have done the trick perfectly — but I don’t have one. Into that same warm oven I put another oven dish with the dried beans and farro covered with lots of water — I suppose I had about 3/4 of a cup of mixed dried legumes and farro and 2 litres of water. Nothing else. Lids on and let it all cook slowly overnight. In the morning while its still warm, I take the largest bones out of the stock and put the rest into the fridge. When its cold and the fat has solidified, I strain it, to get the peppercorns and celery and small bones and solidified fat out. The dried beans & farro will be thick and unctuous.

soffritto

Then, in the evening, I slowly sautéed the soffritto for maybe 15-20 minutes with a good pinch of salt & pepper and a few twigs of thyme. Then simply add the stock and the beans and warm through and its done. Top with some grated parmesan and a swirl of truffle oil if you have it. I know the photo doesn’t do it justice. All I can say is that even my son — who hates all forms of legumes — loved it. It doesn’t have that grainy texture of lentils or beans at all. Its hearty, warming, and incredibly cheap to make. And it reminds me of that wintery day in that wonderful restaurant, Il Tempio del Gusto.

 http://www.iltempiodelgusto.com

zuppadilegumi