Thursday, 26 June 2014

Florence With Children

It's fair to say that Florence isn't the most obvious place to take children. For children under 10 there aren't really any obvious 'hooks' - no theme parks, river boats or big, open spaces - to grab their attention, and although there's pizza, pasta and ice cream in abundance, there's only so much of that stuff you can eat in any one day. If you have older children or teenagers, however, or if you find yourself in the enviable position of having a child-free weekend at your disposal, Florence makes a beautiful setting in which to soak up a bit of culture. When we recently visited with our 6 and 10 year old, we were pleasantly surprised by their appetite for exploration and willingness to go with the flow. 

Whether you have children in tow or not, avoid visiting Florence in July and August - high summer here is literally steaming, and the tightly packed, medieval streets that criss-cross the city seem to hold the heat, turning it into one giant, boiling cauldron...not conducive to a busy schedule of sightseeing. That said, come in January or February and it can be freezing, so Spring and early Autumn are the best times to plan your visit. 

While Florence does have a small airport, most international airlines fly into Pisa, a route served by EasyJet in the UK. At the other side you can get to Florence by train or coach, a journey time of just over an hour. Trains to Florence's Santa Maria Novella Station run frequently and the service is cheap. Be warned that until January 2015 there is no direct train from Pisa Airport due to major engineering works, so you need to make your way to Pisa's central station to travel on to Florence. 

So, what to do when you reach this legendary cultural hotspot? Whether you have children with you or not, my advice would be to pace yourself. There's so much to see that it can be overwhelming. Of course, I'm assuming you have at least some interest in art and history; it you don't, Florence really isn't for you! If you do, you'll quickly realise that the key attractions come with epic, round-the-block queues. Don't bother with the Uffizi, Michelangelo's David or the Cathedral Bell Tower if you're visiting with kids - they'll become quickly dispirited if joining an endless queue forms the main part of their day. But if you're on your own, do try and squeeze in a visit to see David - it's one of life's bucket-list experiences. Don't forget you can take the kids to see the replica David standing proud in the Piazza della Signoria - a much more child-friendly way to feel like you've 'done' a bit of Michelangelo.

We managed to make it into the Duomo and my favourite church in Florence, Santa Croce. Both are spectacular inside. The latter houses some beautiful frescoes by Giotto as well as the tombstones of luminaries such as Michelangelo and Gallileo. It's a very peaceful, awe-inspiring place to spend some time. But if churches aren't your thing I would recommend visiting one of Florence's smaller museums if you want something a bit more manageable than the Uffizi - the Bargello is a good option. 

For something completely free, head over to the Piazza della Signoria, a large, picturesque square where your kids can let off some steam and look at some sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi, a sort of outdoor bit of the Uffizi. When you're here you're just a few moments' walk to the Ponte Vecchio, a real must-see and the perfect venue to watch the sun set over the Arno. 

For a more bohemian, less touristy outlook of the city, continue across the bridge, arriving in the Oltrarno area - the equivalent of Paris' Left Bank. You could head over to the Boboli Gardens while you're here, one of the few green spaces in Florence, where you can wander around formal gardens and fountains - a good place for a picnic. Piazza Santa Spirito encapsulates the bohemian vibe of this area and is a good place for a coffee - the square is lined with some cool cafes and bars with an alternative feel. Our kids spent ages chasing pigeons on the steps of Santo Spirito church.

Further out still is the pretty church of San Minato al Monte, on a hill overlooking the city. Take the bus and stop off first at Piazzale Michelangelo, the only place to get a truly panoramic, breathtaking view of Florence's unique skyline. It's worth paying a bit extra for a coffee at the outside cafe so you can lap up the views while the kids enjoy an ice cream. 

Back in the heart of the city a trip to the Mercato Centrale makes for a diverting change from art history. This massive food market is a great place to wander round with kids and there some truly eye-popping foods to feast your eyes on, from huge slabs of cheese and exotic seafood to salumerie hung with spicy salami, Parma ham and wild boar. Your kids might not be so keen on the stalls selling tripe, a particularly revered local speciality. It's bustling, noisy and colourful and there are lots of opportunities for tasting. Upstairs has a more up-market, trendy feel, where you can stop for a coffee and a cake or enjoy a wood-fired pizza and a beer; a great, good value option for family eating. 

While you're in this area you might as well stroll through the market stalls of San Lorenzo and let the kids choose a tacky souvenir or Italian football shirt. You could then walk the short distance to the pretty church of Santa Maria Novella, with its distinctive stripy facade, and then walk a little further to the gorgeous Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, an old-fashioned pharmacy selling amazing perfumes, colognes and tinctures based on recipes dating back some 400 years. You're quite welcome to take a look around and have a spritz of cologne even if you don't intend to buy.

When it comes to eating and drinking, there are limitless options at all price ranges, but anywhere really central might be beyond your budget (and not always the most authentic.) A great option for lunchtimes are the hole-in-the-wall pannini and pizza places - tiny little shops where you can get a slice of pizza or a hunk of ciabatta with porchetta and a glass of Chianti to be taken away or simply eaten right there on the street. All' Antico Vinaio on Via dei Neri is perhaps the city's most famous paninoteca - be prepared to queue for one of its legendary pannini or schiacciata (flatbreads) stuffed with tasty fillings. We also ate a delicious, good value lunch at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, another good option for filling sandwiches to eat on the hop.

For your afternoon pick-me-up don't miss Vivoli, generally regarded as Florence's best gelateria - your kids will love choosing from the extensive range of sublime flavours on offer. If you feel like splashing out on a posh cappuccino, the cafes around the Piazza della Republica are particularly chic and you can watch the world go by from the outside terraces. Another nice spot is Scuderi, an elegant cafe, patisserie and sweet shop right next to the Duomo. 

For something more substantial, some of the best value options can be found over the river, where you can avoid the tourist traps serving over-priced Italian standards and eat the more authentic, meaty fare for which Florence is famous. We had an amazing meal at Trattoria 4 Leoni which occupies the corner of a pretty square and has lots of outdoor dining space. The food here pretty special and affordable - highly recommended.

I'd advise doing some research before you go as there are so many restaurants in Florence it can be hard to make a choice - we found this article on the Guardian website helpful in seeking out some budget-friendly options. 

Florence might not be ideal as a base if you have young kids but it's definitely worth adding to your itinerary if you're looking to stay in the surrounding Tuscan countryside and do the odd day trip. It's also not the cheapest place you can visit but you can cut down on costs by staying in an apartment or a budget-friendly hotel. On a visit to Florence pre-kids we stayed at the Hotel Globus, near San Lorenzo market. That trip was some years back, so I can't personally vouch for its quality now, but we thought it was fantastic value back then, and the TripAdvisor reviews are very positive - take a look here. You can visit the hotel's own website here.

If you'd like to read more tips on travelling with children to Florence and Tuscany take a look at my other blog posts here and here.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Florence: A Surprisingly Kid and Wallet-friendly Holiday

A plan to visit to Florence, a city close to my heart after spending a year there as a student, had been forming in my mind for a while. I'd promised my eldest son, an architecture-mad 10-year-old, that I'd take him there one day soon, but on properly thinking my pledge through, a few things worried me. It might be a good place to go if your son likes architecture, but you can't really base a whole holiday on that premise.

The pastel-coloured Duomo

Firstly, Florence is an expensive place to visit. Flooded with international visitors all year round, there's a heavy 'tourist tax' on pretty much everything, from accommodation to your morning cappuccino. Then there's the question of suitability for children - Florence is all about art, culture and history, and it can leave some visitors a little weary. There's just so much you HAVE TO SEE and the burden to do it all can weigh heavily. It's not a particularly spacious, green city, and as any travellers with kids in tow will tell you, it's important to balance sightseeing with plenty of down-time at a park or other green space. 

And would the kids be that interested in accompanying me on a trip down memory lane as I dragged them round the places I used to hang out as a 20-year-old student? In fact, would the Florence live up to my romantic expectations at all? 

Taking in some sublime views

But as the year stuttered along, I couldn't quite shake off my longing, so after a bit of research into costs, we decide to go ahead and book. Life is pretty 'safe' for us a lot of the time and while travelling to Italy is hardly pushing the boundaries of travel, it felt good to be led by our hearts and not practicality for a change. If you're a parent thinking about doing similar I'd urge you to go for it - kids make much better travelling companions than you think they will, they're open to new experiences and problems around things like tiredness, eating and other practical matters are never quite as major as you think they will be. 

Children aside, costs are always something we have to consider carefully. I have a rule that any holiday we take additional to our main holiday (which we now book well in advance, paying off month by month so we don't have to come home to an eye-popping overdraft or credit card bill) must come in at under £1000 - and much less than this if at all possible. Travelling within school holidays makes this a challenge but we managed it this time, thanks to fairly cheap flights on EasyJet (which flies to Pisa, about an hour on the train from Florence) and fantastically great-value accommodation, courtesy of Apartments Florence, a service which boasts around 200 apartments across the city, from simple, basic one-bedders to high-end, luxury villas located in the idyllic hills surrounding Florence.

We opted for the former option, obviously, choosing the Alfani, a one-bedroom apartment just a few minutes' walk from the centre of town. We'd read some good reviews and it seemed a more than adequate option for bedding down, with the added convenience of being able to cook some of our own meals, a must for keeping a handle on costs. Eating out times four is expensive in Florence, so being able to sort out breakfast and some of our evenings meals justified the cost of the couple of dinners we did have out. 

Quintessential Florence

While the kids commandeered the bedroom, we had a a comfy, perfectly fine sofa bed to sleep on. And we almost had a room with a view (well, we could watch the quintessential comings and goings of Italian life played out on the street below us.) With a bakery around one corner, a well-stocked supermarket around the other, as well as most of the key sights within a ten minute walk, the apartment was perfect for our requirements. 

However, despite my glowing report I forgot to take photos, so you'll have to head over to the Apartments Florence website to take a look at where we stayed. As I said, this is not luxury accommodation, but we paid just £472 Euros (around £378) for five nights' accommodation. When you compare that to what you might spend on a long weekend at Center Parcs, that's a total bargain in my book.

Having never booked accommodation this way, we were slightly nervous about what to expect, having heard stories from friends about turning up at non-existent villas or their rental not bearing any resemblance to the pictures on the website. The fact that all our communication with Apartments Florence in the run-up to our stay was frequent, clear and polite reassured us, and when we arrived in Italy we were met by a very friendly, helpful representative - a relief after a slightly stressful journey (it being Italy, there had been a general strike a few days before we arrived, Pisa Airport was a bit chaotic and there was no direct train running from the airport due to engineering works...the fact that Italy has a sometimes shambolic attitude to public services had somehow been erased from my romantic memories of living there!)

If you don't speak Italian, don't worry - the company has plenty of English speakers so you can be sure nothing is lost in translation.

Ready for churches, art, and more art

So, we'd arrived and now I had time to soak it all in - would this make a good place for a family holiday? The fact that the sun was shining but it wasn't too hot (Florence can get stifling in the summer) was good, the historic buildings were just as beautiful as I'd remembered them and my kids were excited - it was all looking positive...

So, how do you enjoy a city like Florence on a budget and with kids in tow? I'll be adding another blog post on what we got up to very soon. But for now, if you're interested in finding out more about Apartments Florence, you can visit the website here.


Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Health Kick Kicks In

So, as is traditional this time of year (usually coinciding with that first, horrific trip to the shops to purchase swimwear) me and the other half are on a 'health kick'. While the stream of articles that litter women's magazines on making yourself "beach ready" infuriate me (who has time for a 2 week juicing detox, or a spare £200 to splash out on a figure enhancing, designer bikini?) the thought of exposing my pale, middle-aged body on a beach full of gorgeously lithe, olive-skinned beauties when we go on holiday in August doesn't exactly fill me with confidence, either. Don't most of us get that summer feeling of wanting to be just a bit lighter, a bit more energetic and a bit more glowing at around this point in the calendar? And there's nothing like turning 40 to remind you that your face and body need all the help they can get...

Our summer holiday destination

Several months on from trying to reduce my sugar intake (which I blogged about here)  I'm noticing small but significant changes, helping me stay away from the biscuit jar. I feel less sluggish and perhaps a bit less dimply of thigh. There isn't a weight loss motivation behind me doing this, but I was quite ill last year with a long-lasting virus and when a friend suggested giving up sugar as a remedy to the debilitating headaches I'd been getting, it seemed an obvious thing to try. I can't say with conviction what sorted me out in the end, but taking a long hard look at my diet and being more aware of hidden sugars certainly helped.

More recently I've been trying to address my issues with bread. I bloody love the stuff. But it's just not that good for you, is it? I can't say I like rye bread but it helps to satisfy my bread cravings (only just, though.) I can do without toast at breakfast but a sandwich, panini or baguette would be my lunch of choice. So, I'm limiting a bread-based lunch to the two days I work in an office (purely for convenience's sake) and am then avoiding bread on other days. 

I'm eating a lot of spelt crackers at the mo - nice with almond butter as a light lunch or in-between snack (Food Doctor wholegrain spelt crackers are available at most big supermarkets.) Talking of spelt, we tried spelt spaghetti the other day (white pasta is another of my weaknesses) and it was...okay. For me, nothing can replace proper pasta, but as we eat it a lot as a family I wanted to try an alternative. The kids didn't bat an eyelid about this strange new pasta - I was convinced they'd turn their noses up at it - so that was good; less good is the price point, as a 500g packet set me back £2.45. A packet of normal spaghetti is around the £1 mark so you can see the disparity.

Some low-sugar alternatives

Cost is something that is proving the biggest barrier to maintaining my good intentions. I simply can't afford to buy all organic, fill my basket with wholesome goodies from Holland & Barrett or indulge my romantic notions of starting every day with a home-made green juice, courtesy of a shiny Vitamix blender. Plus, life is really too short to be scouring the supermarket shelves searching for buckwheat noodles or raw cacao. But there are some healthy eating tips that I reckon are worth going the extra mile for, and luckily they don't cost the earth. Here are some other things that are working quite well for me at the moment...

Kale salad - not at all unpleasant

1. Shopping for basics at Lidl

Great for stocking up on the fruit and veg shop - so much cheaper than other supermarkets and the quality is pretty consistent. Items like blueberries, avocados, spinach and salad leaves are a significantly cheaper here. Buying basics at Lidl makes buying more expensive items like the aforementioned spelt pasta more viable. 

2. Swapping my morning latte for green tea

Apparently dairy gives you spots. So the morning lattes have been replaced by green tea, a cheap way to get a good dose of antioxidants. I'm getting quite fond of the taste. 

3. Making vat loads of Jamie Oliver's Tomato Sauce

I get why my kids won't eat kale or broccoli but I still want them to eat well, too. Feeding them veg by stealth is my modus operandi, and this sauce (annoyingly the recipe not available online) is a good one for getting them to eat squash, courgette and carrots without even realising. This recipe is similar to the one I've been making.

I also tried Jamie's Veggie Chilli recently and my kids weren't fully convinced but they were also not completely horrified by it. I think I'll convert them in's the recipe. 

If these fail, most kids like pesto but to give it some extra nutritional value I wilt down massive handfuls of spinach in a pan with a little bit of butter, whiz in a blender and then add to the sauce - a quick way to top up your little veggie-phobes with some vitamins.

4. Trying the easier recipes on the Deliciously Ella website

A lot of healthy recipes not only require you being able to track down hard-to-find items but you also need to have quite a bit of time at your disposal so anything that involves simply dumping ingredients in a food processor is just fine by me. This is why the recipes on the Deliciously Ella site are so convenient as many involve nothing so taxing as a bit of chopping and a bit of whizzing. I have so far enjoyed the marinated kale salad - majorly virtuous and a lot nicer than the recipe suggests - and the cinnamon pecan granola which I'm using as a topper for fat-free natural yogurt in the mornings. It's delicious and a whole lot better for you than the high-sugar manufactured stuff. There are lots of other quick, relatively cost-effective ideas to try on the site.

Granola - not faffy to make at all

5. Finding the right exercise

Turns out I don't mind team sports (despite being pretty dismal at them at school)and it's true what they say - this sort of exercise feels so much less of a punishment. While I still don't fully understand the rules, my footwork sucks and I don't have a competitive bone in by body I've somehow ended up on a netball team. Playing in a proper league and everything! This entails weekly training and a weekly match, providing a much-needed cardio-vascular workout which I'm actually enjoying. Training is free thanks to a great initiative from England Netball (read more here) and match subs are about £3 per match. A total bargain.


Monday, 9 June 2014

Weekly Round-up

It’s been a mad-crazy couple of weeks and we have been away on our latest family adventure (look out for a blog post on our trip to Italy, coming very soon) so blogging has taken a bit of a back seat recently. And I haven't had much of interest to blog about. So, this week's post is a quick round-up of some of the small rays of sunshine in a period that's been a bit hectic, a bit stressful and not hugely interesting (bar our lovely break to Florence, of course. Talking of which...)
1.Half term in Florence
I lived in this lovely city for a year as a student and had been hankering to make a visit back to my old stomping ground for ages. The only question was, would Florence make for a successful family break or would all that art, history and culture make my kids’ heads explode? We decided to risk it, and thanks to relatively cheap EasyJet flights and very family and budget-friendly accommodation, it was a risk that didn’t prove too costly. And the kids’ heads didn’t, thankfully, explode. I think they enjoyed it, though I have a suspicion they liked buying rip-off Italian football shirts from the market more than staring at Giotto frescoes at Santa Croce church….
A full blog post on our trip is coming soon…

2. Cheap 'n' cheerful jewellery
I picked up this little beauty on a recent trip to London, at the Forever 21 store on Oxford Street. If you’ve never ventured into a Forever 21 store before, it’s a pretty manic experience, clearly pitched at the teen age group – I am not their target audience at all. That said, if you’re after cheap, fast fashion and have the time to trawl the rails, I noticed some nice little pieces and the prices are exceptionally wallet-friendly. But as I’m trying to buy less stuff and choose quality over quantity, and resist the false economy (and dubious ethics) of fast fashion, I ignored the racks of hippy-style dresses that looked quite nice and concentrated on the accessories, stumbling on this gem of a necklace that has a hint of the Anthropologie about it – but without the expensive price tag. This beauty cost me £7. Yes, just a little more than a magazine and a bar of choccy.

3. Reading 'Quiet' by Susan Cain
I rarely read non-fiction and have never in my life felt drawn to self-help books, and while this wonderful, fascinating book isn't strictly a self-help book, it does help you understand yourself better if you consider yourself an introvert and reveals the natural reflexes and responses that make some people quiet and anxious, and others confident and gregarious. It's a reminder to yourself that if you like your own company, work best on your own in quiet, familiar surroundings, or shy away from public speaking and 'putting yourself out there' in the workplace there actually isn't anything wrong with you and that your contribution is just as valid as anyone else's. In fact the book is subtitled 'The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking'. If, like me you are a 'quiet' person and fancy understanding yourself a little bit better, READ this book - find out more here.

4. Eating cheese  
My kids don’t ‘do’ shopping. So I knew there’d be no browsing the boutiques of Florence’s enchanting side streets, spending hours picking through vintage knick knacks in the flea markets or searching for the perfect leather sandals (for which Florence is famous)in San Lorenzo, the city’s bustling shopping area. However no trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Mercato Centrale (an amazing food market) and I knew my kids would be okay with this, given that they love looking at weird cuts of meat and barely dead fish…and this place is full of that sort of stuff. It was while browsing the amazing food stalls at the market that we came across a cheese that sounded just a bit special – pecorino infused with truffle oil.
All I can say is the block we bought was nowhere near big enough. Sublime doesn’t go anywhere near describing just how good this stuff is. You can buy something a little similar here albeit it at quite a price!

5. Shoes, shoes and more shoes

Alongside the cheese I somehow managed to buy TWO pairs of sandals in Italy. Just need to fix the weather so I can actually wear them, now. Florence is renowned for its leather goods so if you’re in the market for a well-made pair of shoes or a new bag, it’s a good place to be. I was most definitely in the market for some new sandals as the Topshop numbers I’d packed decided to break on me midway through the holiday. So I simply HAD to buy some new ones. I opted for some simple, traditional-style leather sandals which I picked up in a teeny shoe store near San Lorenzo, selling proper ‘Made in Italy’ products. They are unbelievably comfortable and made from high quality leather. And at just £34, an absolute steal. And how cute are the raffia slides? A rash purchase from Pisa Airport and a great way to use up the last of our euros (29 of them, to be exact – bargain)
Oh, and then I remembered we have a friend's 40th birthday party coming up, requiring another shoe purchase, hence the lovely heels that found their way into my basket on a recent trip to M&S. I really rate M&S for shoes - their range is often quite 'fashion forward', they are much better made than other high street alternatives, and they come in half sizes and wider widths, perfect for my rather awkwardly-sized hoofs. Go take a look at what's in store now - I saw some really nice, sensibly priced shoes on my last trip. 

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