Here are my favourite travel destinations that I visited this year. I spent a lot of time in Italy with three separate visits. The big surprise was Venice which I’d only visited once before for a day many years ago. Although it was incredibly expensive, I loved it.
In June I went to Donegal to trace back my family lineage. I ate simple, fresh, good food. I visited a mass stone where Catholics secretly worshipped. I rocked out at the Rory Gallagher festival. We knocked on plenty of doors to find the ‘Rodgers’ family.
I probably spent three months in Italy overall. It’s an endless source of food stories, new ingredients, new preparations, art, architecture, style, history, colour and beauty. It’s also full of dirt, theft, poverty and tourist traps. Well worth it though.
Three times I visited Sicily this year: by tall ship, by plane, by ferry and by train. I’ve still to write up some of these trips.
I went by train (the carriages were put on a ferry) to the stylish farmhouse bed and breakfast Tenuta Cammarana, near Modica, where I learnt so much about food, in particular how to make home-made sun-dried tomato concentrate. From Sylvia La Padula, the hostess, I learnt that summer pudding is perfect for breakfast and that brioche dipped in granita is just what you want to eat when it’s hot.
In August I visited by tall ship, skimming past the smoking volcanic island of Stromboli, slurping on the Messina speciality coffee granita with whipped cream.
In November I went by plane to experience Palermo in the rain while getting a master class in Sicilian wine from Filippo Bartolotta. The food was sublime as usual, especially the deep-fried polenta-dusted burrata and the stunning swordfish steak ‘ruota di peace espada’
Wines of Sicily like to say ‘hey we do more than big sunny wines’ but I like big, sunny wines and they don’t need to change a thing.
The first visit to Naples was in June for my niece, fashion stylist Rachael Rodgers’ wedding which was featured in US and UK Vogue. The weather was stiflingly hot. The ceremony was punk, gothic and intensely romantic. I stayed at an elegant bed and breakfast Domus Deorum Deluxe which had great air conditioning. Phew.
I visited farmers in the local region Campania to find out about herbs, aubergines, peppers and Piennolo di Vesuvio tomatoes. Tracking down my Italian side I took a water taxi to Minori where some distant relatives have a famous Agriturismo (Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo have visited and learnt dishes) on a hillside. Everything I ate and drank was grown and made on site, from the mozzarella, vegetables, wine to the olive oil.
I returned again in December to witness the braiding of the Christmas tomato, visit the Christmas nativity street to buy some miniatures to add to my creche and try the Christmas apple, the Mela Anurca.
I like Siena so much I named my daughter after the town. This year I took the train to just outside Siena where a friend of mine, Emily O’Hare, formerly sommelier at the River Café, teaches wine courses at La Torre alle Tolfe, a winery just outside the Chianti Classico zone. Emily took me to Panzano where I met the world’s most famous butcher, the raffish Dario Ceccini and I drank some truly exquisite wine.
I finally got to a post-race Palio dinner in Siena, an amazing experience full of medieval pageantry, horses, competing fans slagging each other off in operatic chants, and a dinner for 100 in the street. Marvellous.
Rome is hard work in the summer. It didn’t help that I got my phone nicked on arrival. Have you any idea just how helpless you are without a phone? It was stolen as I arrived at the metro. I didn’t even know how to get to my hotel room. In 40C degree heat, I had to ask ten different sets of tourists if I could look at their Google maps. On the Findmyiphone app, I saw that the thieves had taken it to just behind the Colosseo metro. I changed clothes so they wouldn’t recognise me and searched every table at every cafe, every bin, under every car. They’d gone.
The Italians sighed and said ‘Gypsies’. That’s a bit racist I thought. A week later, having had to buy a new iPhone, a new Italian sim (Three wouldn’t send me a British sim and it was the beginning of my trip), having lost all my credit cards which were in a wallet on the back, an alert popped up: my phone was in Romania.
I did have incredible artichokes alla giudea and artichoke lasagna at Nonna Betta restaurant in the Jewish quarter. More recipes I must recreate. I’d love to write an entire book about artichokes.
It was too hot to visit Pompeii in June. I had memories of going there with my parents as a child and feeling the most thirsty I’d ever felt. December however was perfect, no queue, no crowds, the place to myself. I downloaded the audible book of Mary Beard’s ‘Pompeii, life of a Roman town’ which brought the whole place to life. The rude cock n balls graffiti, the colourful mosaic kitchen worktops, the warnings ignored (these things don’t happen overnight), the horror and the groups of calcified frozen bodies. I even talked to one of the archeologists on his lunch break who showed me, secretly, a newly discovered statue of Athena he’d just dug up.
Reggio di Calabria:
For a long time I’ve wanted to go to Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. I stayed for a couple of days in Reggio di Calabria, a shiny white cobbled coastal town with the famous sexy statues Riace bronzes and the world’s best ice cream. Oh the gelato! You have to go just for that. I ate it at least three times a day. Messina in Sicily sparkles at night across the sea, over which I’d taken the train on the ferry.
The last time I went to Venice, my daughter’s biological father became violent and I had to escape in the night in the pouring rain, booking another hotel. So I had mixed feelings about returning. It’s tremendously expensive. I stayed in a shared ‘dorm’ room for three and that cost me £75 a night. But the Biennale. My parents have gone for years and somehow I hadn’t picked up on the fact that it’s unmissable – like Disneyland for conceptual artists. Biennale tickets are very reasonable – £25 for two main sites which take a full day each- and the rest, scattered throughout Venice, are free. The sunsets, the Aperol Spritz, the pink-hued street lamps, the boat system, the cicchetti snacks, you have to go.
I saw art that make me cry, made me laugh, made me wonder and think. It was a ride. Two of my favourite installations were virtual reality experiences; one by a Greek, another by a Georgian. I’ve done the VR goggle thing before and frankly it was a bit shit. The technology has moved leaps and bounds – I saw the future. It’s a waking dreamscape where you can astral travel and float around like in your sleep; now you can move things and touch them. I want to live to 100 so I can see what is going to happen. It’s going to be amazing.
The next biennale is in 2024. Highly recommend.
I love boats. I even tried to learn to sail just before the pandemic.
Apart from climbing the rigging of a tall ship, and taking the helm at the ship’s wheel, I took an overnight ferry from Palermo with my own private cabin, watching the rosy dawn break over Naples. I did a picnic on a gondola on a lake at Lake Worlitz, with a mullet-haired East German helmsman. I had fun getting lost on the taxi boats of Venice.
I travelled around Europe mostly by train, using a month-long eurail pass. Italian trains are cheap but watch out for last minute platform changes which they only announce in Italian not on the overhead signs. The sleepers are pleasant in the second class Ladies.
German trains have roomy buffet cars where you can get beer and snacks and plug in your laptop. If you can’t get a seat always head for the restaurant car. I also rode a narrow gauge steam train, even got to watch them shovel the coal in the engine, to Brocken.
I’d much rather travel by train than plane, but many of the press trips (that make travel financially possible for me) will only book flights. I guess the tourist board’s standing relationships are with airlines, which is a pity. Maybe this will change in future.
A rail pass is a good way of seeing a terrain inch by inch, I did the same in Japan where the trains are a wonder: efficient, clean, ridiculously polite with train guards exiting each carriage by bowing. The food is good too; with train bento boxes and many food trains (some of which I’ve yet to write about).
In Europe, check out Eurail.com. As I wanted to play it by ear, I used the app to book my trains. The app isn’t exactly easy to work out, and I had to resort to asking my techie son-in-law to help me. I got there in the end.
I’m still writing up this trip to Saxony-Anhalt in the former East Germany. I knew the Goths came from Germany in the first place, but there is a dark, romantic, fairy-tale gothic sensibility which I enjoyed. We heard legends of Faust, devils, princesses, ogres, flying horses, and in Naumberg Cathedral, saw the ultimate medieval babe Uta Von Ballenstedt upon whom Disney based his depiction of Snow White’s Wicked Witch. I discovered the ‘Timber Frame Road’ which is a series of villages of half-timbered houses. Wernigerode was so clean, so perfect, it felt like being on Main Street, Disneyland. I ate a foot-high gooseberry meringue pie in a tea shop (another must do recipe to recreate)
Food was difficult for me as a vegetarian. I lived on cheese sandwiches swiped from the hotel breakfast, hurriedly wrapped in napkins and squashed in my bag. The Germans can bake. I loved the poppy seed rolls.
I flew to Zurich to visit the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, Hiltl, and did a cooking class upstairs. The teacher wanted to give me a job in the restaurant. I loved the pumpkin farm with the as-much-as-you-can-eat buffet and the ex-Carthusian monastery and farm, Kartause Ittingen, where we ate raclette over an open fire.
I stayed a few days extra to hang out with my Swedish chef friend Linn Soderstrom who is living there with her wife who works at Google. I got a tour of Google and had lunch there in their hip cafeteria. The facilities for workers are very cool: pianos, pool tables, bowls of endless snacks, chill out rooms, beds, hammocks, massage chairs.
Zurich is such a nice place to live, idyllic like an architects model city. The clean river has several outdoor swimming baths, everyone swims. In summer, people hire inflated tires for mass floatation parties which sound fun. Why can’t they do this to the Thames? (Yes I know the tide is strong but protected outdoor baths could be sectioned off). Linn told me that the Swiss don’t really know how to cook, that all their food is bland. Despite this I had a couple of great meals: a vegan tasting menu at Neue Taverne and a cheese fondue with potatoes in a basket at Fribourger Fondue Stuebli
My visit to Austria was one of the best press trips I’ve ever done. Fantastic scenery, culture, costume, food, art, history. I got obsessed with dirndls, the national dress. Every Austrian girl sews one in her life. Traditional costume is commonly worn and every area/village has its own styles, colours and patterns. Men still wear lederhosen. I met the Sound of Music family at their castle, Schloss Friedberg. I heard extraordinary yodellers at a folk art museum.
In Vienna I looked at new architecture, vintage funfairs, and had a gala dinner at the Belvedere Palace, with a private view of the paintings of Klimt and Shiele.
Graz is the second city of Austria, a kind of mini-Vienna. This would be a great long weekend destination, a romantic mini-break. It’s very manageable, with trams, museums, pedestrian shopping streets, a world famous armoury (more interesting than it sounds) and great food markets. Graz is in the region of Styria, which is where you find the best ingredients in Austria. Look out for the purple beans that taste like chestnuts called ‘bug beans’, pumpkin seed oil, apples and Concorde grapes.
To Alpine Seefeld and Innsbruck, towards what is now Italy, South Tirol (but in their hearts they are still Austrian). I stayed at one of the most fantastic hotel, Seefeld Sacher, a pine-scented chalet with spa. Everyone who worked there wore dirndls and lederhosen. This hotel would be the ultimate Christmas destination (if you have the money). Rooms are from 230 euros a night.
In Kristallwelten, I visited the Swarovski museum. Like the underground lair of a Bond villain, this is a crystal-encrusted series of caves displaying the work of Swarovski. The collection includes Michael Jackson’s crystal studded glove, Cher’s dresses, costumes from the film Moulin Rouge, a replica of Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress, and commissioned work by artists such as Yayoi Kusama. The tour of each chamber, 18 in all, lasts around an hour.
In November I visited the UK’s only wine hotel, the Llanerch. While I sipped on white, rosé and sparkling Welsh wines, I could count sheep outside my bedroom window while wrapping myself in Welsh wool blankets. The restaurant serves fine local ingredients and stunning desserts.
Book here for the hotel, restaurant or a tasting session.