Things are OK now; A trip that I didn’t like; And relax.

Well, just to keep you updated, the problem that was, is “was” and is no more. Or, at least, not for a bit and, soon, possibly not forever again.

So, that’s good, isn’t it? Yes, it is.

Today has been a holiday but some work came in unexpectedly, yesterday, and today was doing that. In between, under the bloody rain, I did lots of things including picking up jeans that were having a new zip, taking stuff to the dry cleaners, food shopping and going to get F’s main present. I didn’t feel I could leave that until the last minute. Just far too risky.

So, now, apart from food shopping for Christmas and he last minute things and wrapping presents, I am done.

And relax!

But I just wanted to talk about Israel. Before I went, last weekend, for work, many people told me how lovely Israel is and how great Tel Aviv is, etc., etc.

Now I’ve been before. I wasn’t all that impressed last time. This time even less so. I just don’t get it. I obviously don’t see what everyone who’s been there sees.

Let me describe to you my feelings on Israel and, in particular, Tel Aviv.

it is a dirty, messy hole. I wouldn’t go and live there for all the money in the world.

And then there’s the people. Arrogant doesn’t even come close to describing them. A bit like the Italians (but much worse), everything is done much better in Israel, apparently. Except it isn’t. And they always want something for nothing. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t deal with them. They are, as we say in the UK, a nasty piece of work.

And let me just add something that is a bit controversial.

Let me first explain that what Hitler and Mussolini did in the war (and their people) to the Jews was horrific and inexcusable. It should never be forgotten and we should always be watchful that something like this doesn’t ever happen again.

If I were Jewish, and lived in Germany or Italy, it would have been possible that my grandparents would have been killed. So it’s not that far away from me, if you see what I mean.

However, whilst never forgetting about it, I do feel it’s time to put it behind one and move forward. I don’t want to hear about it every day.

You see, I wasn’t hungry. The first day we had a very large lunch and then a very large dinner, provided by our hosts. By day two, I really couldn’t eat much.

I had a little bit of the appetiser, declined the soup and the first course. The jerk just opposite, to the right said, “Oh you can’t be Jewish”. Stupidly, I ask why not. He replied that, if I had been Jewish I would have eaten because, due to the Holocaust, all Jews feel they have to eat everything!

Well, for one, I don’t believe that and for two, excuse me but FUCK RIGHT OFF! That’s not an excuse for you to be a fat bastard and, even if I were Jewish, I would also have some pride about my fucking appearance which, quite frankly, you obviously don’t. And stop relating everything to the Holocaust! I guess, of course, that they can’t leave it alone because, I imagine, their parents constantly reminded them of it – but leave it alone now. As I said, we should never forget, none of us, but it should not be mentioned every fucking five seconds!

And, can I say that the hotel was the very worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. And I really do mean EVER – in all my time staying in hotels (which is a lot of time and a lot of hotels). The Diaghilev, LIVE ART Boutique Hotel will NEVER see me there again. I was a little worried when I saw all the reviews so positive – but quite recent reviews. I should have stayed with my gut feeling. Cold room, no hot water, no decent service, no breakfast the first morning. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. My review is on TripAdvisor but the reviews are, generally, full of people posting their first ever review who think it is the best hotel ever. So mine will be lost down the list, which is shame for the real travellers who will be so disappointed when they stay there. Next time, I shall be more careful with TripAdvisor (and I had thought I already was!)

There were two good things about the trip. The first was Turkish Airlines – on time, food good, service good (we flew Milan to Istanbul and then to Tel Aviv). The second was the meal we went for (just me and my colleagues) to < href="" target="blank">Tapas 1 where the service was great and the food superb!

Anyway, enough of all that.

In the meantime, I am, almost, ready for Christmas and so I say … BRING IT ON!

Second Floor?

“It’s on the first floor,” he says.

He gives some instructions but I only listen to the first bit – “turn right out of the lift”

My room is 257. Strange that. Usually, rooms on the first floor start with a “1”. But I don’t really pay heed.

I turn left and follow the signs. I’m in a hurry. There’s a beer with my name on it. It’s Mantova. It’s what I do here.

After twisting and turning through the maze of corridors that seemed to go on forever, I see the sign for some rooms in the two-hundreds pointing up some stairs.

The room IS on the second floor after all. And now I remember him saying something about “stairs”.

I reach the second floor and see why. There are a handful of rooms on this “dead-end” floor. The only way back out is down those stairs to the first floor!

It felt like it had taken me about 20 minutes to get here.

Of course, subsequent journeys to my room were quicker – seemed quicker. But it’s always that way. When you don’t know the way the journey doubles or triples in time and distance but once you know the way, then it’s OK.

Anyway, “second floor” made me think of this. Enjoy

Suzanne Vega – Luka

Mantova – hotel and food; My “meat” place near Carrara will close :'(

Change. It’s what happens. Some people welcome change, some put up with it and some hate change but, in any event, it’s inevitable.

People change, places change and restaurants change.

I mention this because one of the highlights of my trips to Mantova for the Festivaletteratura is a visit to Grifone Bianco, right in the centre of Mantova. The service has always been perfect, the food “to die for” and they always remember me even if I only go once a year!

So, I’m in Mantova for the Festival and I go to see M, who is the manager of the festival, to ask the usual questions – i.e. what events should I go and see and the booking of restaurants.

I was there for almost 2 days this year, staying overnight in the Albergo Bianchi Stazione. A decent hotel with rather good, helpful staff. My room was clean and tidy and as it is right opposite the station, it was very convenient. A 10 minute or so walk to the centre of Mantova.

So, my plan was one dinner and one lunch. I thought that a Saturday night dinner would be nice and then Sunday lunch – as I wasn’t driving, drinking wasn’t a problem :-)

Obviously, I just had to go to my favourite restaurant and thought Sunday lunch, in the sun (hopefully) would be rather nice. As it turned out there wasn’t to be sun and, even a smattering of rain. But that didn’t really matter for M told me that it had changed hands. Massimo, the owner, still owned the building but, so the story goes, a guy walked in last year and offered to rent the whole thing, as it was, for what must have been a ridiculous sum of money. M told me that one person who had gone there during the festival had said he’s waited over 3 hours to be served the food after ordering! So we decided on two different restaurants. Sunday was booked no problem but the one we chose for Saturday night was already fully booked. So, we booked Grifone Bianco anyway with the promise that I would tell her how it was.

In the past, the waiting staff were rather good. They seemed to have all been there for years, they knew what they were doing and it was rather splendid. As was the food. This time, however, the waiting staff were all quite young and, it seemed, they had been taken on for the festival as they didn’t seem to really know what they were doing. Having said that, it wasn’t bad service – it just seemed a bit “hectic” whereas the old staff made it seem effortless.

As for the food, well, I had the same as usual – affettato misto (a mix of local salami and cold cuts with parmesan cheese), tortelli di zucca (like ravioli with a pumpkin filling – a speciality of Mantova) and stracotto d’asino (a stew made with donkey meat – another speciality of Mantova and really more of a winter dish – it comes with polenta).

But, I’m sorry to say that, although my choice of food was, more or less, the same as last year, the food was definitely NOT the same. The thing that I like about the affettato misto is that it come with mostarda a kind of pickled fruit with a slight mustard taste. Mostarda is another speciality of Mantova. Except now, at Grifone, there is no mostarda – plus the coppa looked a bit dry, to be honest.

Then the tortelli – beautifully rich yellow squares of deliciousness – but not in this case. The taste was OK but the look was not quite so nice. The stracotto was OK and, more or less, the same as always.

But it definitely wasn’t the same restaurant which is a shame. Will it still have a good enough reputation in three years time when it goes back to Massimo? We shall see.

And, on the change note, this may be the last time that La Brace, near Carrara will be open. This is my “meat” place for Carrara and something I always look forward to – a little like Grifone in Mantova. We went there in the summer, as usual, to learn that the couple who run it are thinking of retiring by Christmas and, rather than sell it as a going concern, they’re going to convert the place back to a house and then sell up! It was a bit of a shock and now I wonder if I can survive for a whole holiday without my “meat fix”. We shall have to find somewhere else, for sure.

Back in Mantova – I took Saturday lunch in the enormous “canteen” they run at the festival for volunteers, staff and guests. With my ticket, I was permitted to go into the guest room. The food is rather good. It’s quite full but there’s a table partly free near the door in that there are two people sitting there but 3 spare places. I ask if I can sit there and am told yes. I hear that they are speaking English (although one of them is Italian). The Italian lady (realising I’m English because of my English pronunciation of Italian) asks me, in English, if I would like some water, which I take. The English lady asks if I am an author. I say that I am not – just a friend of the festival. I ask her if she is an author and yes she is. She is, in fact, Margaret Drabble! I am embarrassed. I feel I should have recognised her but, you know, authors aren’t generally like other celebrities – their photos are not splashed all over the newspapers in the way that showbiz people photos are! Still, I feel embarrassed and, as usual when I’m that embarrassed, I come out with something so annoyingly asinine which, thank goodness, I only realised was so trite and terrible some hours later. However, we chat for a little while about Mantova and Milan and where she lives, etc. Bless her, she ignored my opening lines.

Sunday lunch, on the other hand was truly delightful. The place was L’Ochina Bianca (little white goose), M’s favourite restaurant at the moment. It’s cosy atmosphere fuelled by seeming to be sitting in someone’s front parlour, was made more so by the slight informality of the place. As if I had been invited over for a Sunday lunch with Italian friends. Of course, it was a restaurant and not someone’s house. But, still, it was lovely. I chose to have the Salame mantovano to start. Now this was more like it. A delightful selection of Mantovan salami, ciccioli (which would best be described as pork scratching – absolutely wonderful), mostarda (properly “home made”), grana (like parmesan cheese) and gras pistà (I’ve no idea what this was – it was like soft polenta with something similar to creamed gorgonzola). I skipped the pasta dish although, in hindsight, it would have been worth trying their tortelli. I chose the Guanciale di manzo stufato con verdure – beef cheek stew with vegetables and polenta. Incredible! Luckily, they also do fish so should F ever come with me (I’m still hoping), it’s perfect for both of us. I will be going back there, for certain.

So, although disappointed with the change at Grifone, I’m quite happy to have found the little white goose thanks to M.

I am, now, of course, very fat!

Baia dell’Est

Over the weekend, we stayed at the hotel at which the wedding reception was held, the hotel Baia dell’Est.

I had booked it because it would be easy and permit us to drink without having to worry about driving.

And, then, I read the Trip Advisor reviews – and I was worried! They weren’t very good.

To be honest, it has good and bad points. The view from most, if not all of the rooms is stupendous. The hotel sits on a rock high above the coast with views over about 200 degrees around. Most rooms seem to have a balcony or terrace for you to enjoy those views – looking over the bay, over the beaches and over the beautiful-looking sea.

We got there and walked from the car park to the reception. As you walk down the path, past some holiday cottages (part of the hotel), to approach the reception over a rather nice internal terrace-type area. We could see one of the other terraces over-looking the sea.

Patric, the owner, who has recently taken over the hotel, is a really nice guy with a good smattering of English (enough to get by). The reception area is modern and cool. He gave us our room key and took us down to the room.

We had a small apartment which included a bedroom, bathroom, lounge-cum-bedroom area with two single beds, a kitchen area with dining table and a rather large terrace. Had we brought the dogs, it would have been perfect as large areas of the terrace stayed in the shade from the large pine planted there. In the height of summer, this would have been the perfect place to be.

It was clean and tidy.

The only thing that we could fault with the room was that it was a bit tired. The furniture and fitted kitchen were of a 70s or 80s style and it seriously needed updating. But, we weren’t staying there for a week, so that was OK. And, anyway, we thought it was unlikely that we would be staying in the room for long periods given that we had a car.

But, the views were truly amazing.

One other small problem – although advertised as “with a restaurant”, in fact, until (I think) July, the restaurant is closed and then only opens for July and August. However, they were very accommodating and said they were able to get pizza delivered from a local pizzeria – which they did for some of the wedding guests who didn’t have cars.

As we had a car we went to a pizzeria they suggested that was about 10 minutes away. The pizza was good and the place was friendly and nice.

One of the problems that was mentioned was the noise. Unfortunately, the place is a bit echoey. We were far away from the place, just outside the reception, where people were drinking and, as it was English people, they did get a bit loud and drunk. I only heard them about 3 in the morning when they came to the bedrooms near us but someone did say that, with their room having the door overlooking that area, they suffered more.

For the wedding itself, I couldn’t fault it. They have three “dining areas” on three levels. Each has a terrace overlooking the sea. The area directly behind reception is the main dining area and it’s smart. The top dining area, for our wedding, was used for aperitivo and, after the meal, for desert and the cutting of the cake. The bottom dining area was used for breakfast.

The food served was really, really nice and they are very accommodating as we had mainly fish which two people on our table couldn’t eat – so they served meat options. The food was abundant (after all, it was an Italian wedding) and the service good.

That was the Friday evening. Saturday evening they had another two weddings, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. By about midnight, the noise from the wedding was in competition with the disco on the beach below us. Fireworks went off about 2 a.m. but I’m not sure if that was from the wedding or the disco. Either way, it seems your sleep will be, more than likely, interrupted.

However, as it wasn’t our main holiday and as we were there for one of the weddings, it was tolerable. I think if you came there for a relaxing holiday, you could be a bit annoyed. And Patric has the idea of continuing it as, primarily, a wedding venue.

So, if you want it as a wedding venue, you’d be hard pushed to choose better. A stunning venue with excellent food and enough rooms for almost as many guests as you like. And it must be good as they have bookings for hundreds of weddings for the rest of the year.

And, then, there was the price. We paid €50 per night for the two of us. It was a special deal as we were part of the wedding but, even so, it is dirt cheap.

I would like to see it in a few years when they’ve spent a bit of money on the rooms.

Hotel Castelbarco; Bergamo – Città Alta; Crespi d’Adda – a night away

Sorry. Been busy. Still am.

But taking a break for a moment.

Saturday night we spent in a hotel not far from Milan, the Hotel Castelbarco, near Vaprio d’Adda.

Vaprio is a small town just outside Milan, on the river Adda, hence its name.

It was a Groupon voucher thing that I got about 6 months ago and, so, as normal, we were running out of time!

It was for one night’s B&B.

The hotel was formerly the stables, etc. of a rather grand house, now used for functions (such as weddings). The grounds are spread along the river Adda. To the left of the great house are the stables and so on (now the hotel) and to the right are some other buildings (maybe new) that are now a restaurant, bar and night club complex (more on that later).

To be honest, I wouldn’t say the hotel was WOW! but it was quite nice and very, very clean. The breakfast was ample. As normal with Italian hotels that have been converted, the walls are paper thin and the woman with her stilettos that she continued to wear as (it seemed) she danced for an hour round the room next door, didn’t help. But, that aside, it was fine.

We arrived at something like 3 p.m. on the Saturday afternoon. It had been raining on and off. Fine rain or drizzle, not the normal Italian downpour, thank goodness.

We got in our room and dumped everything and left for Bergamo.

I’ve always wanted to visit Bergamo, more famed by the British for it’s airport that receives Ryanair jets from the UK. But there are two Bergamos – Bassa and Alta – and I had heard that Bergamo Alta was really quite a lovely city – being the original city built long before flying started and, as normal in Italy, on a hill.

And, pretty it was. A small medieval town with cobbled, narrow streets opening out, from time to time, on small squares or, in one case, the Piazza Vecchio (Old Square).

The cathedral (although it might just be a church) was wonderful, if not a little strange. There seemed to be a great mix of styles from Medieval to baroque – but it was lovely. We were both hungry so stopped for some lunch at Al Donizetti.

Although there was some very fine rain, it didn’t seem so cold and there was, waht seemed like, an old ‘market place’ under which they had tables. People were there eating without coats and so we chose to eat ‘outside’. that was possibly a mistake as it started to rain heavily and we ended up not taking our coats off at all!

It was also very touristy. But, then, the whole of Bergamo was very touristy – full of restaurants and bars, particularly those advertising their beers.

But the food was good and the service pleasant and, had it been a little warmer, it would have been lovely. We shared a plate of cold meats including lardo and some rather fine boiled and cured hams and then F had some polenta with mushrooms in a sauce and I had tomasino (a flat round cheese) with speck (they said it would be ‘crispy’ but it wasn’t so I wondered if that got lost in translation) on a bed of raddicchio done in a red wine sauce. It was rather lovely. The wine was good.

The only thing that let it down, in my opinion, was the sweets. I’m sure they were home-made but the pear and chocolate tart that I had was neither chocolatey nor pearey enough for me. The ricotta cake that F had was, to me, just stodgy without real taste . However, overall it was good.

We walked around the town for a bit, in, what was now, drizzle and light rain or, occasionally, no rain at all!

It was all very nice.

We had decided that, rather than eat in Bergamo and then have to drive to the hotel afterwards, we would go back to the hotel and eat there.

And so we did.

To get to the restaurant from the hotel, one can walk but, given that it could rain at any time, we drove.

The car park was overflowing. It made us a bit worried that the restaurant would be full. We eventually found the entrance (for it was not well signposted) and it was, in fact, the entrance to the bar and nightclub. When we explained that we wanted to go to the restaurant, he took us through to it.

If I say that it was being in a restaurant of a fairly cheap, 90s hotel, I think you’ll get the idea. If it wasn’t that I really didn’t want to have to drive around (having already have had a little less than half a bottle of wine at lunchtime), I would have suggested going somewhere – anywhere – else.

But it was all too late now. We were in Cubeba, famed, according to its card, for food, drink and dance!

And the food was more like something one would receive at Little Chef! Don’t get me wrong, Little Chefs are great places for food – for a very reasonable price. This was overpriced and the musak far too loud (to drive out the sound of the bar music, I suppose). I mean, it was OK but nothing WOW!

However, next door, it seemed the whole of Vaprio and it’s surrounding villages had come for they were having a ‘Fashion Night’. We went out for a cigarette at one point but, because we had to go through (a little bit) the bar, we had to have our hand stamped to prove we were entitled to go back in without having to pay! Not really what I expect from any decent restaurant.

The waitress, who seemed new, tried her best and, so, for us, we left a good tip. For the food I would have taken some money away! For the ambience, we should have had the whole thing free.

However, F did notice that, on Friday nights, they had their ‘Beautiful People’ night. It made us both laugh.

The next day, after breakfast, I had planned to take F to Crespi d’Adda, where he had never been.

It is a ‘workers village’ built by the Crespi family to house the workers for the factory they built next to the village. They say he was inspired by the model villages he saw in the UK during a trip there and I guess they were right in that it does have quite an ‘English’ feel to it.

I had been worried because of the rain forecast but, in the end, we were lucky with sunshine and warmth and a lovely trip round the village. This time I had looked it up on the net (see link above) and so had a better idea of where to go and what to see. It was a shame we couldn’t really get to see the owner’s ‘castle’ but the rest of it was just as I remembered it. F really enjoyed it.

Then we came home as F had to get ready to go to Germany which is where he is now.

Overall I would give 3 or 4 stars to the hotel, 4 stars to the restaurant in Bergamo and 1 star (for the waitress) for Cubeba. Next time I’ll try and remember to find out about the hotel restaurant first, before we try it!