Sizzling Sicily – The ultimate Italian road trip

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The vistas from the Greek Ampitheater, Taormina

In May, I needed a holiday. My body ached for one, I was exhausted from working non-stop, typically six-day weeks. Yes, I’d hopped abroad for a city trip to Copenhagen in February but it was a working holiday with a whirlwind of interviews. By May, I was desperate for a break. I knew it needed to involve the three s’s (sun, sea and sand) but I yearned for more than your standard beach break. And so, after much research, it came down to Sardinia vs Sicily. If you caught the headline you’ll see that Sicily obviously triumphed, thanks to the extra pull of being culturally rich with Greco-Roman sites dotted across the island.

And what a brilliant decision that was, with Sicily proving to be a beautiful and interesting destination, combining everything I needed from a holiday. While the entire holiday was drenched in bliss, it kickstarted with luxury, thanks to two nights at a hotel that I never wanted to leave – and one my mind often flicks back to when I’m drowning in work and need an escape. That place is Monaci delle Terre Nere, a boutique hotel that was traditional yet contemporary and stood in the shadows of Mount Etna, where you could hear her rumbling on an evening.

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Taking in the views from Monaci delle Terre Nere

We arrived and were bequeathed with samples of wine from the charismatic owners Guido and Ada, who had lovingly restored the property to create the most wonderful Italian getaway. In an hour I was slightly tipsy, and totally bowled over by the charms of the place. The rooms were all individual – some rustic and traditional (the first room we stayed in featured a former olive press) others modern and chic. A lavish breakfast set outside amongst the tall trees and with sweeping views of the coast, was filled with all kinds of delicacies – olive breads, lemon cakes, cheeses, fruits, meats and eggs. At Monaci delle Terre Nere I woke up at 5am to watch sunrise, I swam in the outdoor pool everyday, I relaxed in the hot tub. And while I could have spent the whole duration there just chilling with a glass of wine in hand, we escaped to Taormina where we sunbathed on Isabella beach and swam around large rocks before escaping up to the old town by cable car to walk around piazzas with pistachio and chocolate gelato and wander around the Teatro Greco, the old Greek theatre, which serves up magnificent views of the coastline and Mount Etna.

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Relaxing and swimming by the rock pools in Ortigia 

From there we headed south of the island and stayed on the pretty island of Ortigia, where you can get lost among the cute, cobbled streets. Here we watched (and tried to get our heads around) a Greek play in Italian, climbed down a very long ladder to head to the rock pools where we swam alone and hungrily got stuck into a packed lunch from the local market. The highlight was of course a super long baguette filled with mozzarella, oregano and salad that was knocked up by an old, well-known guy in the market who has been making the best sandwiches in town for years. Do visit the market and fill your bag with herbs and nuts to bring back home.

We stayed in the super-cute Le Lumie B&B in Modica, a beautiful city with sandstone ridges, and where we ate one of the best meals of our lives (I have never tasted ricotta so good). We visited the Baroque cities of Noto, where it was time for more sightseeing and gelato, and Ragusa, where the most welcoming Italian waiter supplied us with extra nibbles and lots of chat when we made a pit stop for coffee and cocktails.

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The Valley of the Temples 

By Sicilian standards, it was an almighty road trip around the island. From the Baroque cities we broke up the journey to see the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, before reaching Castellamare del Golfo, in the north west of the island, late at night. Arriving tired and exhausted from a day of sightseeing and driving in the car, we were overjoyed when the owner of the apartment we had booked greeted us with a large pizza box (just 15 minutes before arriving we had discussed how we might order takeaway) and handed us the keys to the room with soul-stirring vistas of the mountains and sea. Oh, and we had a hammock (which admittedly, left me bruised me. Don’t ask). It was divine. During those last few days of the holiday we discovered small, isolated beaches, where we sunbathed and swam out to the rocks, and walked in the picturesque national park. It was bliss.

Thankfully, Sicily proved to be the respite I had craved for. Although we explored heavily, there was still lots of downtime at the beach, much much swimming, lots of gelato stops (pistachio was one of my favourites) and so many memorable lunches and dinners. I returned slightly sun-kissed and happy. What more could you ask for?

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Paradise? The Natural Reserve of the Zingaro

 

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A warm embrace for a cool Copenhagen

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Colourful Copenhagen

Oh, Scandinavia. How I’ve lusted after your designs, been drawn into your noir crime dramas and envied your off-the-scale happiness levels. I’m not sure it was any of these factors that compelled me to book a trip to Copenhagen in February. I put the urge down to so many friends flocking to the Danish city and coming back raving about it, and how every travel supplement I opened included an interesting write-up on the cool, happening city. I needed a break and there were stories there I wanted to write about. And so that’s how, several days after booking my flights, I found myself in Norrebro, the kind of Stokey equivalent of Copenhagen, in a cool light Airbnb apartment setting me back around £18 per night.

 

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Bowled over by the architect beauty Louisiana 

It proved to a an insightful and fun trip, although a break it wasn’t. I landed – and then dived into a constant stream of interviewing people across the city over the next five days; a couple of hours after arriving I visited a co-working space and interviewed several tech startups. An hour later I was tucking into pizza and a bottle of red with the city’s most talked-about startup in another suburb. The next morning started with a 9am interview in a graveyard peppered with a light spray of snow. I spent my Saturday afternoon in the homes of two residents of Christiania, the city’s freetown. Later that night I hung out with the tech startups from the first evening. On Sunday evening I dined amongst 200 strangers in a church. Though there were a few non-work related jaunts (a trip to arts museum Louisiana, diving into local food markets, dinner with a stranger I met via Airbnb at her boyfriend’s hip new Nordic restaurant in the Meatpacking District, visiting the Botanical Gardens), it was these work endeavours that threw me into the city with vigour. I got to know the locals, came away with interesting stories and felt like I’d (kind of) got to grips with the city. And that’s kind of what you want from a trip, right?

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Travel agenda for 2016

Well last year’s travel adventures were an absolute blast. From a five-day trip to Madrid in March and a festival/spa downtime in Porto, it was mainly a home and European focus, with weekend trips to Wales, the New Forest and Durham, and of course a strong show on the festival circuit.

The bigger trip came later in October, when I decided – or rather I had an unwavering urge – to pack my bags (and most importantly, my laptop), and work from another European city. Where should I go? Paris or Berlin? And so Berlin, with her cool, crazy, fun-loving open attitude, took me in. Those five weeks were brilliant, feeling like I was breathing, living life – a feeling that usually runs through my body like a current when I remove myself from my day-to-day life and go travelling or living abroad.

And so I returned back to London but Berlin tugged has tugged my heart so much that the plan is to head back to the German capital once again for an unknown length of time. My future travel plans are dictated by Berlin, so I expect German adventures to feature heavily.

I am aching to go to Sri Lanka, Burma or Cuba, sun-filled destinations (in the right months) intertwined with history and beautiful landscapes, but that may come later in the year. Trips to the still very hip Copenhagen and Paris are also firmly in my mind.

And so to 2016, here’s wishing you all a year of happy, safe and responsible travel.

Susie

 

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A spell in cool Berlin beckons

Berlin | OberbaumbrückeWhen I returned from my 15-month backpacking adventure in 2003, my mother was overjoyed, “You’ve got it out of your system now.” Not so fast, mother hen. Fast-forward to a decade later, and the urge for travel and adventure and a life less ordinary still beats strongly inside. A couple of years on from jaunts to New York, and I’m yearning for another adventure.

And so this time, I’ve set my sights on a short stint in Berlin. For me, going on holiday – while escaping and alluring as it is – doesn’t dig deep enough to really feel the pulse of a place. I love temporarily residing in a city, going for jogs in the local park, discovering the best street food market or wandering across a little candlelit bar on the way back home to my apartment.

In true Susie fashion, it’s a rather last-minute affair. While the Airbnb apartment in Berlin’s creative neighbourhood Kreuzberg is booked and I’ve bagged a couple of commissions on Berlin, I still need to book my flights but there’s still time (looks at the calendar at the ten days or so I’ve got left) and ideally I would have brushed up on my German. But that’s the joy of spontaneity – finding yourself in Berlin with a couple of suitcases and an open book.

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Picturesque Porto: Primavera’s beautiful backdrop

Porto on a sunny day

Porto on a sunny day

I’m not quite sure how exactly Porto trumped other destinations to become one of my big holidays this year, but it was definitely swayed by the fact that it was home to Primavera Sound (Porto), the offshoot of its more famous sister festival in Barcelona.

The trip started off very well, as it only can do when you’re sipping the complimentary bottle of Port in a freestanding tub on your first day of your holiday while you’re Spotifying the hell out of the playlist for the acts on that evening. Let’s just say I learnt one big lesson in Porto – don’t drink a whole bottle of Port to yourself unless you want to feel like someone is trying to compress your skull into the shape of a ruler the following day. So when C was quaffing Champagne at breakfast the next day, I was quietly sipping water.

Porto's most famous bookshop

Porto’s most famous bookshop

Despite life lessons learnt, festivalling in Porto proved to be a brilliant alternative to the UK festival scene. With the main headliners playing after 10pm, it meant after we’d recovered from dancing till sunrise, we could spend the days exploring Porto, a beautiful city with terracotta rooftops and bridges you just want to off into the Douro river.

Cable car over the banks of PortoWe’d spend the afternoon on the beach at Foz, using the rocks as wind shields, wander and lunch at the quayside, swoon over the grand designs of Livararia Lello – one of the oldest bookshops in Porto – or being educated on all things Port (perhaps this should have been at the start of my trip) by the wonderful and informative PR of Taylor’s, one of the oldest Port lodges.

Room with a view

Room with a view

As I was commissioned to write a piece for a spa magazine, the final part of the holiday was spent at The Yeatman, a beautiful wine and spa hotel located high on the slopes, nestled between the port lodges. What with the Yeatman’s fine dining (it has a Michelin-starred restaurant that’s worth the visit alone), infinity pool, all-round sweeping views of the city, it made the trip to Porto even more memorable. Just remember Port’s best served as an apéritif.

The room's stunning terrace

The room’s stunning terrace

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Now that’s what I call an impromptu trip to Madrid

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I’m known in my circle of friends for my lack of planning, much preferring a dash of spontaneity than committing weeks ahead. This last-minuteness even drills down to my travels; so much so that late last month I messaged my bud N who lives in Madrid on the Tuesday if she would be around if I swung by on the weekend for five days (the perks of freelancing). Thankfully her response was ‘sie’.

I’m not sure where my inability to commit to any future plans has come from because I don’t think I used to suffer from this. So given my last-minute escape, even as the weekend approached, I was still arranging the hotels I’d be laying my head at and plotting adventures for in the Spanish capital.

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I’ve previously sang loudly about my love for Madrid (and what to do in the city), which I’ve now lapped up three times. I much prefer it to Barcelona, which tends to hog the limelight, but that might be because not only was I there for work but I managed to be gripped by a severe bout of food poisoning for two days, and was constantly harassed with phone calls by the PR who’d organised for me to be there (and when you’ve not slept during the night, I just wanted the throttle this bloody woman).

Retiro Park: where I cycled, jogged, walked and devoured an ice-cream

Retiro Park: where I cycled, jogged, walked and devoured an ice-cream

I’m scribing a piece for Elle’s travel section on what to do in this super cool city, which is graced with enough galleries, museums, plazas, parks and tapas joints that you’ll be wishing that your boss called you on the Sunday and said ‘don’t come in on Monday’, so you could extend your two-day city break, because Madrid deserves so much more of your time.

This being my third visit to Madrid, I didn’t need to stomp the museums (as glorious as they are); I could pace myself and live as a local. For me that included a cycle, jog and walk around wonderful Retiro Park, and a return visit to the extraordinary blissful candle-lit, steamy Hammam Alandalus Madrid (Calle de Atocha, 14, 28012; 34 914 29 90 20). These Arab baths transport you away from the bustling city and underground into an oasis where the only noise you hear is running water.

And damn I bloody loved a visit to the magical Opera House for the premiere of El Publico, which attracted well-heeled Madrileños  (think an entire fox around their shoulders), and perching up at tapas bars and getting rather tipsy at the most authentic sherry bar with K.

Shopping at a flea market

Shopping at a flea market

One evening I stayed in Madrid’s luxury quarter Salamanca, also home to fashion’s crème of the crème (think Manolo Blahnik and Miu Miu), but I shooed these in favour of browsing Zadig and Voltaire, cool trainer brand Ash, and Comptoir des Cononniers. I also stumbled across such a beautifully designed & Another Stories; so vast was it that I managed to get lost. On a one-level shop.

The jaunt made me hungry for another European city break. Maybe I’ll need to get booking that trip to The Hague pronto, K?

Still, it ain’t so far till June when C and I dance will be dancing away at Primarvera festival in Porto and then succumbing to relaxation for two days at the city’s super stylish spa and wine hotel, The Yeatman Hotel.

As soon as that article is live on Elle, I’ll swing up another blog post.

Me and Niki perched at yet another tavern

Me and Niki perched at yet another tavern

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New Year, New Travel Resolutions

New Orleans’ charming French Quarter

Reflecting back on last year, 2014 proved to be a stellar year for my satisfying my travel pangs. I hoofed off to Israel for a two-week adventure that brought together a slew of culture, sightseeing, delicious cuisine and pampering (I was commissioned to write a piece on the country’s spa scene while I was there).

One of the highlights was cool, vibrant Tel Aviv, which has the highest proportion of attractive people in the world* (*according to moi), and where I feasted on so much shakshuka I missed it dearly when I returned home. Another was slathering mud all over our bodies in the Dead Sea while walking into the ancient city of Petra as the sun was melting us was a memory that will never fade. The holiday was hectic – “oh, are we changing hotels again?” but thanks to partner in crime C, the holiday was a constant fit of giggles and heaps of fun.

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Next was Ibiza. Oh how I’d lusted for years to visit the island with a group of friends, dance until the wee hours, visit stunning beaches and relax by a villa with magical sunset vistas. And finally, after I’d just never quite made it happen before, U organised for a group of us to go for her birthday. It was bliss and it made me realise just how rewarding a holiday with a base is – not having to slog around that heavy grey suitcase or backpack for ever revolving hotels was a treat in itself.

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And so to 2015. An adventure to the Philippines or Burma was on the agenda for the start of the year but being such a wanderlust I’d want to take off for about a month and being freelance, it’d cause a big dent in my savings. Instead I’ll be holidaying nearer to home. Porto is all booked and paid for. C & I  will be staying in the beautiful dark and sexy Hotel Teatro (booked through Mr & Mrs Smith) while we’re dancing the day and night away at the city’s Primavera festival, and recovering the next three days at wine and spa hotel The Yeatman.

With no other big trip on the horizon as yet for 2015, I’m toying with the idea of a kind of tri-city Spanish break, packing in a visit to see N in Madrid, then catching the train to cool city Valencia to see another friend and finally kicking back in Seville with N. If you’ve got any tips for the latter two, do post them below.

I’m also hoping for some camping and festival adventures on home turf – I’ve just booked in for local small festival Farr Festival – and a trip to the Lakes with my sister-in-law is likely to be on the agenda and I’m dying to stay over at one of The Pig’s four outposts. Also, I’m definitely going to head up north to see B in Manchester, a city that’s becoming cooler every year.

Happy travels in 2015.

S

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