Thursday 22 August 2013

Venice for Families

I'm just back from an amazing Mediterranean Empire cruise which visited Olympia, Athens, Istanbul and some gorgeous Greek Islands. The cruise departed from Venice and we flew out a couple of days early because I wanted to share with my children this fairy tale city which floats on water and whose canals and gondoliers give it mystique and romance......
And I wanted to share with all of you a couple of memorable tips which will not only enhance your stay in Venice, but save you money too.
I stay in a lot of hotels around the world, but the hotel I found us in Venice was an absolute gem. I'd been looking for somewhere cheap (not many of those in Venice) and a room which could accommodate all five of us (ditto, not many). But after searching on google and Trip Advisor I found the Hotel Palazzo Vituri:

It was an absolute find and an absolute steal. The hotel was only about a seven minute walk from St. Marks Square, but it felt wonderfully off the beaten track, set on its own quieter square with a fountain in the middle and two of its own churches. Our room overlooked this square - what a view. And speaking of our room. It was HUGE, with a modern bathroom and decor in keeping with the whole residence: Renaissance Venice, with lofty wooden ceilings, cool marble floors and decadently huge oil paintings covering the walls. And what's more, the room only cost us 235 Euros, including breakfast, for all five of us. The hall outside our room had a small balcony and the staff kindly offered to bring us up breakfast to eat there, overlooking the square, watching Venice come to life as the sun rose. Amazing.

Mostly we explored on foot over bridges and through tiny alleys, walking and window-shopping (Venice is packed with dramatic mask shops) and shopping proper (I don't even normally like shopping, but the Murano glass jewelry and chichi boutiques proved too tempting) and we stumbled upon a couple of must see/do attractions:

1. There's a quirky bookshop in Venice close to our hotel (Libreria Aqua Alata: address Calle Longa Santa maria Formosa)which had cats running wild and books piled everywhere in gondolas and bathtubs. And out back there are steps made of books which the children (and Mum) climbed for fabulous views of quiet, backwater canals:

Nathalie, my eldest daughter, is incredibly artistic. Exiting from the back entrance of the rambling book shop we stumbled on another captivating view, void of tourists, which she asked me to take a photo of so that she could draw it back at home:


Minutes later the children started clamoring for some authentic gelato. And Mum certainly wasn't averse to a spot of ice-cream either. Now there's nothing worse than when you start forking out a small fortune (seriously, sometimes five ice-creams can almost cost the price of a pub lunch) on what so often turns out to be sub-standard ice-cream, but we found a place which was the find of the century. Two weeks on and we're all still talking about it. This sleepy little gelateria in a sleepy back road deserves to be mentioned in all guide books (but I'm pleased it isn't) because boy, was their ice-cream stunning and cheap. 1.5 Euros for one scoop in a cone or a cup and the scoops the serving lady served us were HUGE - she did NOT hold back and we couldn't even have eaten any more than one scoop if we'd tried:
Flavours sampled were:
Fragola (strawberry)
Bianco white chocolate with hazelnut
White chocolate with mango
Cream of Pistachio
Gelato al biscotto (my choice)
Trust me when I say that they were ALL sensational and I'm salivating even at the memory.
The name of the ice cream parlor is: Dolce Freddo
The address is Castello, 5377.
And trust me, it's worth a trip to Italy just to try the ice-cream from this place - gelato which won't break the bank. It was the best value ice-cream. Ever. And also not far from our hotel. Top tip: do NOT be tempted to buy ice-cream from major tourist hubs. We did the next day and regretted it. It tasted synthetic and nasty and ended up in the bin.
Anyway, happy on this dreamy ice-cream (I wish we'd taken a photo of us licking our cones but we didn't) we finally found our way to St. Marks Square and the waterfront - behind us lots of gondoliers are lined up (gondoliers cost ridiculous sums of money, so we resisted and the children didn't seem to care - we'd taken a water taxi known as a vaporetto to get there from the airport, so at least felt we'd had a watery experience):

The fan my youngest is holding was another impulse purchase made in Venice. We just couldn't help ourselves.

We also enjoyed the Peggy Guggneheim collection (704 Dorsoduro)- this was about a half hour glorious early morning walk from our hotel. It's small enough to take in the collection and, because is was her home, she is buried in the garden alongside all her dogs. There are pictures by Magritte and Picasso and it has a gorgeous garden, added to by Yoko Ono who sent a Wishing Tree there.

We had such a special 24 hours in Venice and all of the above really made our stay............

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Sunday 4 August 2013


Just a quickie..............I'm shortly about to take to the seas on a couple of American cruise liners. First up is a Mediterranean voyage on board a Holland America ship. Next (the children are salivating at the prospect) it's a Disney cruise around the same waters. But before I report back on those ones, click on the link below for some other family sailing ideas which won't break the bank balance:

P.S I'm afraid I didn't get the camera out last night. The Funghi a la Jo went down very well with the Italian family, but nobody felt that a photo would do them justice. Clearly my cooking's all in the tasting rather than presentation...........

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Friday 2 August 2013


I'm not much of a cook, but I am proud of myself for devising my very own recipe. Real chefs among you won't be overly impressed, but suffice to say that one of the dishes accompanying every BBQ I've made this summer has been a recipe concocted by yours truly. What's more, it's been a veritable hit.
It's a cheat of a dish, but who cares? The reaction from consumers has been unadulterated thumbs up, followed by the unlikely question (those who know me well know that I don't cook): "How did you make these?"
Normally I try to distract from this kind of questioning because normally anything I serve up that tastes special usually isn't made by me at all, but posh-shop bought and passed off as my own.
But with this particular dish I have positively REVELED in the disclosure. So, here it is:

Recipe for Funghi a la Jo

Ingredients: Large flat mushrooms - however many desired
                  Shop-bought pesto sauce

Preparation: Wash mushrooms, place upside down on heads, liberally spread pesto sauce on their undersides. There is no such thing as too much pesto in my opinion.

To cook: Place on BBQ until done.
               Alternatively these can be oven baked or oven grilled.

And hey presto. You have a lick-lipping dish which has guests asking for seconds.

Any other easy BBQ recipes very welcome - please leave a comment. I'm going to try to remember to take a photo of the mushrooms tomorrow night to post for all to see.

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That's what I've had this summer.
Well, ok, it's only been made possible because we've had such amazing weather here in the UK (duh, and a few weeks back I was complaining about how it wouldn't stop raining!) but hey, better to have the epiphany late in life than never at all.
I'm going to be honest. And it hurts. For the last twenty years I've enjoying eating BBQ's round at other peoples' houses, but when it's come to doing my own I've always bought these little tiddly aluminium disposable BBQ trays which fit a maximum of 6 burgers if you're lucky. It's a shocking admission for someone who enjoys their food as much as I do.
But with long balmy evening night after night here in London, I finally made a radical appeal to my husband:
"Darling, I think we should buy a proper BBQ."
That was all the inspiration he needed. A couple of hours later he returned with a beautiful Weber model and we've never looked back.
Meal after meal has been enjoyed in our back garden, accompanied by a cool crisp bottle of chardonnay. We've barbecued burgers, sausages, chicken, sea bass (my favorite), vegetable kebabs with haloumi cheese and one other key dish (see next post). I now can't get enough of the BBQ and can't believe I held off for so long. And what's more, we've enjoyed entertaining in the garden, making each meal a lovely social event. Tomorrow night we've Italian family from Roma coming - let's see if they prefer my home-made BBQ to their home-made pizza.
My beautiful late mother always used to say: "Food tastes so much nicer outside".
Here, here.

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