Italy

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Polignano and Monopoli – Once a Shelter From Invaders and A Wanted Fishing Port

Slow down to appreciate the gentle pace of coastal life, where the sun and the sea dictate the course of the day

Tommaso, Giacomo and Agostino sit in the corner of a piazza in Polignano, faces carved by the sun. ‘We’ve been friend for 50 – wait, 60 – yearsʼ says Agostino, laughing, as if the time were too long even to contemplate. ‘When the sun turns that way, we sit over there.’ As across much of southern Europe, the square is a men-only club, while women tend to sit outside their houses. There’s a sunbleached quiet to the town, its pale, narrow streets in shadow, lanes that lead nowhere, and over it all, the half-hourly tolling of church bells. Mostly wedding-cake white, Polignano seems to have grown out of cavernous limestone sea cliffs.

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Polignano – Southern Italy

Its top-of-the-world position was once its best means of survival, as Pugliese seaside towns were a favoured pitstop for Turkish pirates and other raiders in the Mediterranean’s more lawless days. A few centuries on, life is less fraught, with locals line-fishing from the cliffs, and the town elders keeping an eye on what’s up. This small town has movie-star looks, which is why it draws many of the region’s visitors. Wandering the streets you’ll hear Milanese, French and Spanish accents, and there’s a cosmopolitan feel about this sleepy place that’s almost contradictory. In the old town square, a gaggle of elderly ladies watch from a balcony as some passing Brazilians demonstrate capoeira.

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Bari: One of the biggest suppliers of Seafood and Homemade Pastas – Puglia, Italy

Puglia supplies a sizeable share of Italy’s seafood and Europe’s pasta – sample the best of both in the charismatic yet untouristy town of Bari

Bari’s busy seaside fish market is a male domain. Slap, slap, slap is the soundtrack, as weathered fishermen beat their catch of octopus on the quay with wooden palettes. Five minutes of tenderising, and it’s time to clean the octopus by swilling it about in a bucket of seawater. Vito, with a smile that lights up his face, carries a huge octopus over to his lockup and disappears inside before re-emerging with a long hook to lift a bucket of water from the harbour. ‘I’ve fished for 70 years,’ he says.

‘I started with my father when I was eight years old.’ Behind him, his brother, squinting in the sunlight, washes more octopus, rhythmically swishing the water back and forth. Once Vito has cleaned his octopus, he puts it in a wicker basket and shakes off the water, another stage in its long preparation. All this labour is particularly important, because the Barese like to eat their seafood raw.

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Octopus catched in Bari – Italy

As the day moves on, the port gets busier. There are fierce arguments over card games with twice as many onlookers as players. A hanger-on explains: ‘They play games like la Scopa, or la Briscola… not for money, but for beer.’ The social hub is centred on the bar, where more and more people turn up, some buying and selling fish, but mostly to pass the time. Men argue over the price of fish at the market stands. As his brother pounds octopus on the quay, a young fisherman called Maurizio sells the local passion – ricci di mare (sea urchins; ricci di terra means hedgehogs). He cuts them in half to display the sweet-tasting orange eggs.

Cutting a sea urchin for its orange eggs

Cutting a sea urchin for its orange eggs

Raw octopus tentacle, usually washed down by a cold beer, is another favoured Barese aperitivo. Recognising that diners may be squeamish about this, restaurants often serve the dish grilled too – Osteria Le Arpie, for instance, hidden under a stone archway in the heart of the old town, its outdoor tables scattered over cobblestones, does a roaring trade in polpo alia brace.

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Osteria Le Arpie Restaurant – Bari

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Do it like the first fishermen in Gargano Peninsula– Vieste, Italy

Explore the rural Gargano Peninsula – a rocky, forested promontory edged by golden beaches and white cliffs.

A strange contraption like a half-finished ship juts out from the headland, high above sloshing wave. Sunlight sparks on the sea, and seagulls caw overhead. Beyond is a long, pale beach and the town of Vieste, where another finely balanced confusion of wood and wire is just visible.

These are trabucchi, coastal fishing mechanisms that are peculiar to the Gargano coastline (and Abruzzo, in the north), though fishermen use similar structures in India, Africa and China.

Seaside curiosities, the trabucchi add to the area’s otherworldly feel. Many millennia ago, the Gargano was an island, and it still looks different to the rest of the region – a wild lip of land more like Croatia, just across the sea, than Puglia’s largely flat, olive-grove-covered landscape. A slow-paced area even by Pugliese standards, the Gargano’s continued use of trabucchi is indicative of the region’s commitment to the old ways.

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A trabucco stands on the rocks near Vieste.

Natale Masella, a spry 67, clambers up onto one of the huge antennae and gracefully weaves his way through the wires in a dizzying feat of balance. He is watched by Giovanni Spalatro, president of an association that works to conserve the trabucchi. ‘My father still does this job, too – and he’s 78,’ Giovanni says. The day he stops will be the day he dies.’

Natale signals to Giovanni, and the men work together to crank up the net. As they lift it, the fish flip and flop, shining silver in the sunlight. Children start to learn the difficult skill of working the trabucchi as young as two, in the hope that they will one day inherit the craft. ‘Fathers are proud to pass it on,’ says Giovanni. ‘Ever since I could walk I have been coming here. As a child, it felt like being on a pirate ship.’

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Ca Maria Adele – Venice, Italy

WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THE LOOK?

This small Dorsoduro hotel is a celebration of the very Venetian art of decadence, and has its own private jetty to boot. Located inside the walls of a 16th century palazzo, traditional décor abounds – flocked wallpaper, marble, velvet curtains and carvings in dark woood – but charming eccentricities (liket he vases that contain swimming goldfish as well as lilies) stop it feeling over the top.

WHICH ROOM IS MOST MEMORABLE?

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Named in honour of Venice’s highest historical office, the Sala del Doge doesn’t disappoint – a display of blood-red brocade, with extra pomp provided by Murano chandeliers and an ornate gold headboard.

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BELMOND HOTEL SPLENDIDO – PORTOFINO, ITALY

Try to imagine a perfect Italian fishing village – it would probably look exactly like Portofino. Yachts bob in the sheltered harbour and the dockside is awash with a fashion-forward crowd. Add to this a glamorous, grand hotel and you have Belmond’s Splendido, overlooking this little port since its days as a monastery.

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An aerial view of Portofino – Italy

It is quintessentially Italian: relaxed, chic and decidedly flirtatious, floating on a celestial staircase of garden terraces with airy bedrooms, a saltwater pool, spa and tennis court. The freshest fritto misto di mare is served by smiling staff in the open-air Terrazza restaurant, with a panorama of speedboat action below.

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La Terrazza restaurant – Portofino, Italy

In the evenings the Piano Bar is the place to be for local villa owners and smart visitors alike. Antonio Beccalli, barman of 45 years and friend to the Hollywood greats, may even join you on the dance floor. From here, expeditions along the Ligurian Riviera are essayed on the Splendido’s handsome launch, seeking out beaches inaccessible by road.

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The Piano Bar – Portofino

Should, however, sun or fun take their toll, one can always submit to a massage in the shady garden overlooking a bay in where models cavort aboard Rivas off Villa Berlusconi.

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DOMAINE DE MURTOLI – CORSICA, ITALY

There are no road signs for this 2,500-hectare private estate, set back on a wild peninsula near Sartène; discretion has always been key since the Corsican owner Paul Canerelli started developing the hideaway on a hefty chunk of family property (10 times the size of Monaco) back in 1994.

Once guests have set foot in the grounds (leave stilettos and Gucci loafers behind) they might not venture out again. There’s a positive extravaganza of things to do, including all possible nautical sports, fishing, horse-riding, mountain biking, botanical walks, hunting (for those who fancy whipping up a wild boar stew) and teeing off on a nine-hole golf course.

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Playing golf at Domaine de Murtoli – Corsica, Italy

The maze of red-dirt roads leads to 16 isolated, rustic stone cottages hidden away in verdant mini-valleys, or at the edge of crystalline coves. All of them – from the romantic sheepfold for two to the sprawling villas for up to 13 – have pools, fireplaces and proper kitchens, although it’s difficult to resist the temptation to eat at all three restaurants.

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The view from a pool of Domaine de Murtoli – Corsica, Italy

With a vegetable garden, fruit orchards, olive groves, 150 resident cows and 500 goats (the domaine’s fromagerie churns its own brocciu, a soft, creamy ewe’s-milk cheese), Murtoli’s farm-to-table food is the real deal.

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BORGO SANTO PIETRO – TUSCANY, ITALY

This place is as cultured as any of its more fusty aristocratic Tuscan rivals, but sexy too, and warm, and just a little bit glamorous.

The location helps: south-west of Siena, it stands not far from the beautiful roofless abbey of San Galgano, in an area of untouristed hilltop villages surrounded by oak woods and walnut groves. It’s the creation of Danish interior designer Jeanette Thottrup and her husband Claus, who fell in love with this remote country house and opened it as a small hotel in 2008. Inside there are silks and velvets by Fortuny and Rubelli, quarryfuls of antique marble, Murano chandeliers, vintage nickel radiators and, in the main entrance hall, weathered flagstones from a 13th-century castle.

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Treehouse Bar – Borgo Santo Pietro, Tuscany, Italy

What really impresses is the continual fine-tuning: the extensive gardens, from kitchen to formal, have come on apace, the Treehouse Bar offers a sweet alternative to the more elegant main restaurant, and there’s an always-evolving range of things to do, from yoga to truffle hunting, falconry and even Vespa tours. And now the spa, among the best in the region, is moving into new, bigger quarters.

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Spa lounge at Borgo Santo Pietro – Tuscany, Italy

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THE MAGICAL SPELL OF CRUISING

Hitting the high seas on a European getaway with MSC Cruises.

Where do you go if you’re planning a family holiday for five couples of varying ages – plus your darling, 90-year-old Uncle Ted? We had to find something that fitted the bill for the entire clan and,  finally, it dawned on us: a cruise. After all, what other holiday caters to your every want and whim, lets you explore somewhere new and magical almost every day – and ensures you only have to unpack your bags once? Welcome to the wonderful world of cruising. Countless emails and international calls later, the tickets were booked and our bags were packed, ready for an 11-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise with MSC Cruises, on board the MSC Armonia.
We set sail from Venice – and what an incredible place to begin the journey. Wandering its labyrinth of streets is akin to being a kid running around an old-world maze. Will you ever find your way out of this magical place? And do you really want to? Let’s face it, it’s not often that you can turn a corner by mistake and end up in somewhere as fantastic as the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square). And, of course, romance is everywhere. It’s embedded in the glorious Venetian architecture, and blooms in the vibrant potted flowers that adorn the buildings in its narrow backstreets. Romance abounds in the city’s many bistros, bars and meeting places, and twinkles on the water of its canals. Little wonder then, that ccoples flock from all over the world to experience a gondola ride with their loved one. We were no exception – it had to be done.

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Piazza San Marco – Venice, Italy

Onboard, everyone in our party settled into shipboard life very easily. Being a European cruise, there was a mix of nationalities and from day one we were one big melting pot of people, all out to have a great time. Sailing out of Venice down the Grand Canal was sheer sensory overload. As the ship slipped through the water, magnficent buildings such as the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute and Doge’s Palace faded into the distance as we cruised towards our first port Ancona.

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Beyond Venice

A short boat ride from busy Piazza San Marco, these under the radar Venetian Lagoon Islands promise a tourist-free taste of the real Italy.

On the water-taxi ride from Venice’s Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, a storm is building on the horizon. The boat skids over the canals, blurring past Gothic arched windows and ornamental bridges before emptying out into the vast, open wetlands of the lagoon.

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A water-taxi in Santa Lucia -Venice, Italy

The driver points to the inky sky and shouts over the engine, “Acqua alta!” It means “high water” in Italian, but it’s the Venetian term for the especially high tides that afect the lagoon from September to May. Tellingly, it’s also interchangeable with the local word for storm. Water, as every Venetian knows, is ubiquitous here: It’s under you, around you and, in this case, even over you.

This rainy day is the start of my five-night trip to Venice, capital of the Veneto region. This time, though, I’m not setting foot in the city proper; the tourist-clogged Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs, Saint Mark’s — those I’ve done. Instead, I’m turning my sights to the oft-overlooked islands of the Venetian Lagoon, 118 in total. Some are mere islets covered in grass and of interest only to nesting ducks and their hunters; others are home to crumbling ruins and fishing camps. But several are undergoing a major renaissance — with new luxury hotels, revived vineyards, locavore yoga retreats and Michelin-starred restaurants.

Mazzorbo, Isola delle Rose, Burano, Torcello, Sant’Erasmo and Isola di San Clemente: what these islands ofer is a taste of Venice — with far fewer crowds.

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Travel Icons… by the Back Door

From Great Wall to Grand Canyon – skip the queues and leave flag-waving tour guides in your dust with these alternative approaches to the world’s most-visited sites.

Bagan – Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar)

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Visitors Per Year: Around 2.1 million

Among the plains of central Burma lies ancient Bagan, the remains of a kingdom comprising some 2,000 Buddhist temples. Until recently, visitors were scarce but now the secret’s out…

Front Door: A fee (25,000MMK/£14.44) is charged upon entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Most visitors arrive via a short-hop flight at Bagan Nyaung U Airport. From there, the town of Nyaung U is a ten-minute taxi away, but the majority stay in the resorts scattered among the temples of Old Bagan.

Back Door: Stay in Nyaung U for more of a local feel; it’s also not far from the Irrawaddy River, so end your day with a quiet cruise. Rent an E-bike to explore the temples of Old Bagan away from the tours, while hot-air balloon flights are also a good way to skip the crowds. Be sure to book at least a month in advance; it’s also worth paying extra for the smallest (four-person) basket. Bear in mind also that access to the upper levels of temples is now banned in all but five pagodas.

For the most popular temples (Dhammayangyi, Shwesandaw, Ananda), arrive just after sunrise. The tours leave shortly after the sun comes up and the touts are too drowsy to bother you. After, rent an E-bike and head into the plains to discover smaller sites such as the Nandapyinnya, near Minanthu village, which has some of the best-preserved wall paintings in Bagan and is usually empty.

Head down to the jetty in Nyaung U and hire a boat (from 150,000MMK/£9) to take you up the river to a pair of temples (Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi) not easily accessed by land. Plan this as an afternoon excursion and you can spend the sunset on the Irrawaddy as well.

“Thisawadi (near New Bagan) is a quiet alternative to catch sunrise/sunset. There are several levels on the way up it, but the highest offers the best shots. This is also one of the few temples still open for visitors to ascend, but less popular than the likes of Shwesandaw.”