Christmas break to Bologna, Parma and Modena

For the second year running I have worked in a role whereby the company has a “shut down” between Christmas and New Year. With very little focus on business during this period, I personally think it is a great idea.

It gives employees time off to spend with family, eat and drink far much more than is necessary or for the wanderlusts in the world – it gives us some time to get away from it all.

Despite what many think, jetting off between the two is not as pricy as you would expect – especially if you plan well in advance. I took full advantage of the Lastminute.com summer sale booking a cheeky two night break to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. In particular, Bologna.

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Soon after securing my trip I was straight on to planning to find out which other Italian towns and cities were within easy each.

Italy is by far my favourite country in the world – most likely due to my heritage – so I like to maximise my time when I am there. The best way to do so – by train. Unlike the costly service in the UK, Italy has a fantastic network of affordable, reliable and comfortable trains. Some are even “double decker” offering wonderful views of the countryside. Therefore you can easily find yourself from one city to the next.

So where did I venture on this trip?

Bologna

Bologna, the capital and largest city within the region, is renowned for it’s culinary tradition. Though most famous for the “Bolognese Sauce,” or Ragu, the city is a foodie’s dream, with meats, cheese, pasta and wine available from numerous deli’s. Even in the depths of winter, at just 4 degrees, the narrow streets are jam packed full of food lovers.

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The centre of this scenic city is Piazza Maggiore. In the heart of the city centre, here you can admire the architecture of Pallazo d’Accursio, the Basilica de San Petronio, the Palazzo del Podesta and the Palazzo Comunale.

 

To the north west of the square you will find Piazza del Nettuno and the famous fountain of Neptune. During my visit it was hard to miss next to the most impressive Christmas tree I have seen to date.

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Bologna is famous for it’s leaning towers, the most iconic of these stand next to each other and are named after two important Italian families – Asinelli and Garisenda. Asinelli, standing 97.2 meters tall was used as a prison and a strong hold. The smaller of the two towers, Garisenda, reaches just 48 metres, however it does have a noticeable tilt and overhang of 3.2 metres.

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If a view is what you are after, you can climb the towers for an uninterrupted view over the city and landscape beyond.

San Petronio stands as the 10th largest church in the world by volume, dominating the centre of Piazza Maggiore.

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The church has a Gothic design and despite being constructed between 1388 and 1479, it has never been finished. You will notice the front facade has coloured marble stone on the lower half, yet the top is bare and comprised of brown brickwork.

Wander down some of the quiet back streets of the city and you will stumble across La Piccola Venezia. Bologna once had a number of canals running through the city, today you can still see one of these.

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Dubbed “little Venice” you will find a queue of eager tourists waiting their turn to take a picture through the tiny square window on the wall. Directly opposite is also a clear, open view. Though at times it is known to dry up completely, so perhaps one thing to avoid in the warm summer months.

Parma

One of the largest cities within the region is Parma. The city, most famous for its cheese and prosciutto, is within easy reach of Bologna – just an hour on the train.

On arrival, it was notably less bustling than the regions capital. Most shops, restaurants and cafes being closed with it being a Sunday and in the midst of the Christmas holidays.

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That said, wandering the narrow cobbled streets of the city and taking in the stunning architecture at my own pace was rather tranquil.

Located in the Piazza del Duomo you will find probably the most iconic buildings of the city. Sitting a stones throw away from each other is Parma Cathedral and Baptistery of Parma.

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The cathedral is said to be one of the finest examples of Romanesque cathedrals in Italy. The front features a number of ornate arches, whilst the inside you will find a plethora of decoration.

The Baptistery of Parma, sitting next door to the, dwarfs in size in comparison to the cathedral but stands taller than the central point on the roof of the cathedral. The octagonal baptistery towers over the surrounding buildings and features stunning artwork and arches on the outside.

The interior is equally as stunning, with marbled statues and each of the eight walls containing frescos that were painted in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Higher wall sections contain statues of important Italians and on the ceiling you will find painting split into sections that details different religious figures.

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Head to the Piazza Garibaldi and you will find the charming square with an abundance of shops, restaurants and cafes to relax in. Here you will note the Palazzo del Governatore spanning the width of the square. The historic building, constructed in the1200’s served as a major government building for hundreds of years.

The square, like most the city when visiting, was rather quiet with many workers preparing for what I can assume would be their New Year celebrations.

And, just like the city of Bologna, Parma had a number of fascinating deli’s selling a variety of cheese, wine and meats.

Modena

Situated half way between Bologna and Parma, this quaint city is rich in culture, history and most famous for Balsamic Vinegar, opera and Italian sports cars. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani were historically manufactured here.

Located in the Piazza Grande you will find the Romanesque style Modena Cathedral, one of the highlights of the city. As with most cathedrals, it is free to enter, so it is worth stepping inside to appreciate the brick work and artwork above the main alter, which is laced with gold and depicts the Passion of Christ.

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Next to the cathedral stands the Torre Ghirlandina, acting as its bell tower. Standing at 86.12 metres, the tower is the tallest structure with in the city and is now an icon of Modena. If you feel up to it climb the tower for a birds eye view of the city and surrounding area.

Piazza Grande, situated next to the cathedral and tower, is rather charming. The cobbled stone, surrounding coloured buildings with arches and ornate clock brings an ancient feel to the area. Though teaming Sunday market stalls, selling trinket and antiques, there was still a sense of peacefulness about the square.

Palazzo Ducale, situated at the end of Piazza Roma is one of the most recognisable buildings within Modena. Constructed in the 1400’s, the palace was originally the residence of Este Dukes of Modena. Today the palace holds part of the Italian Military Academy. Military ceremonies and performances are also held here.

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No visit to Modena is complete without a visit to Museum Enzo Ferrari – especially when the family name on your maternal side is Ferrari!

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Enzo Ferrari was born and bred in Modena. With parts of the museum house in his original home, it celebrates his life and the business he built. Here, you can get up close to a number of these impressive vehicles (NO TOUCHING), a dream for an car enthusiast.

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When attempting to pack in three cities in just as many days, you find the time whizzing past. Soon enough it was time to pick up an array of culinary treats and souvenirs, gorge on some pistachio gelato (because no trip to Italy is complete without this, no matter the temperature), before heading back to Blighty.

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For any food lover the whole region, including these picturesque cities, is an absolute must. My only regret was not taking the biggest meat fiend in my life along with me. With so much more that could be explored, I have no doubt I will incorporate these destinations to another Italian adventure in the near future.

 

Weekend Break: Malta & Gozo

As the clocks went back and the UK was set for months of gloomy weather and downpours – I attempted a final sunshine break. Booking a long weekend to the sunny islands of Malta and Gozo.

If you only have a few days, a long weekend is just enough time to take in the sights and, if planned well, you could even sneak in a little island hop to Gozo.

Here’s what we managed to fit in.

Valetta

No trip to Malta would be complete without a trip to the capital of Valetta – the fortress city. The best way to see the historical city is by foot. Take time to wander the alleyways, sloping streets and stairways of the UNESCO Wold Heritage site.

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Wherever your interests lie, be sure to include the city’s iconic monument, St John’s Cathedral and the Lower Barrakka Garden for a lovely view over the harbour.

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Mdina

The “Silent City” of Mdina was a must do on our list. With its ancient walls and mix of medieval and baroque architecture it is clear to see why it was one of the many filming locations for Game of Thrones.

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Not only was a visit to this charming city like a step back in time, it was tranquil (virtually free of any traffic), offered fantastic views over the Island (on a clear day) and is somewhat of an Instagram paradise.

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Our only gripe was that in early November we were greeted at the city gates with a heavy downpour and no shelter!

Dwejra

Dwejra with its dramatic and, at times, tempestuous coast is an attraction like no other. Despite the Azure Window collapsing in 2017, the coastal attraction is worth a visit.

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Here you can explore the bay and rock foundations, take a boat trip (if in season) through the caves or simply watch the waves form and crash along the coastline.

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Taking in the spectacular view is a great way to spend an hour of your time.

Ta’Pinu

In the valley between the villages of Gharb and Ghammar you will find The Sanctuary of Ta’Pinu. The shrine of Ta’Pinu is ancient, despite the origin being unknown the first records of the chapel date back to 1534.

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Unless you are extremely religious you would would only stop for a brief period at this Roman Catholic monument. Most tour operators will pause for a short time to allow visitors enough time to take pictures of the impressive shrine.

Xlendi Bay

This picturesque bay is a popular spot for swimming, snorkelling and diving. The small, sandy beach with shallow waters is perfect for all ages and adventure for those who enjoy snorkelling in deeper waters.

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Though bright, warm and sunny during our visit, the sea was a little too aggressive for my liking. Instead we opted for a climb up the coastal stair case to take in the views, before opting for lunch at one of the quaint restaurants.

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The Stone Crab was the perfect spot to test the local cuisine – crab ravioli for him and a tasty vegetarian version for me.

Marsalforn Bay

It is said, that in the summer Marsalforn is one of the most popular resorts on the Island. As such it is brimming with families from both Islands who spend their summer near the coast, as well as eager tourists taking advantage of the diving and snorkelling opportunities around the bay.

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From here there are a number of good boat trips on offer around Gozo and over to Comino and the legendary Blue Lagoon.

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Despite packing a number of areas into our itinerary over the weekend, there was so much more left unexplored. Owing to stormy weather, typical for the time of year, many of the surrounding fishing villages were flooded, trips over to Comino and the Blue Lagoon simply did not run and unexpected downpours made it difficult for us add in the famous Popeye Village.

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With so much more to see, I imagine a return trip to the Islands will be on the cards in the near distant future. Though I enjoyed my time over the weekend, without an influx of tourists, I may actually have to brave the crowds during peak season to make the most of what the Islands have to offer.