The first Capital of Britain – Colchester

Considering I have a husband who went to school in Colchester I had strangely never visited this town in Essex, the very first capital of Britain.

I was given the guided tour by hubby and mother-in-law both keen to show me around their town; the weather for once being exceedingly good helped us to wander and explore comfortably.

On our way into the centre of town we passed a beautiful ornate water tower, a red bricked army garrison and some rather gaudy 1970-80s architecture. I discovered a magnificent mix of ancient and more modern architecture.

We headed to Colchester castle where we plumped for a guided tour of the historic landmark.  Our guide although rather frail was very knowledgeable about the entire region and we even discovered he was a fellow alumni from my husbands old grammar school!

He explained the castle was built by the Normans on the foundation of a giant Roman temple that was built to honour deceased Emperor Claudius, back when the town was the official capital of Roman Britain.

Apparently Colchester was soon replaced as capital once the Romans discovered another place at the end of a great tidal river that they named Londinium what is now London. The reason Colchester was usurped as a capital was that the River Colne that passes through the town was tidal and ships could only pass along it at high tide so restricting sailing times. The River Thames on the other hand although tidal was so vast that the centre of the river remained deep enough for ships to sail down it even at low tide.

The temple fell to disrepair once the Romans were finally driven out and this castle was eventually built in 1076 in its place. This is the biggest and best-preserved Norman keeps in Europe. It was even used as a prison during the 13th-16th centuries where it held notorious witch trials amongst other atrocities.

The views from its ramparts are truly spectacular and you can also see evidence from the years it was used as a place of residence as there’s a lovely stain glass roof !

We were also taken into the cellars underneath the castle to look at the foundations close up and also the vast spaces once full of sand, that were used as air raid shelters during the Second World War. Worryingly our guided highlighted that what appeared to be rocks cemented into the walls of the foundations of the giant castle, were in fact just congealed dried mud from the river bed and large cracks are visible in the basement’s arched ceilings – thank god the council thought to add in concrete supports at the end of the 20th century!

Colchester castle is home to the Castle Museum today that reveals many fascinating layers of history to visitors. Archaeological collections of international quality covering 2,500 years of history are beautifully showcased, including of the most important Roman finds in Britain.

For more information see www.cimuseums.org.uk

For information on visiting Colchester see http://www.visitcolchester.com/

 

Florence – The City that celebrates the art of living well

After our binge on culture and trek around the amazing city of Florence we stopped for a glass of Chianti in the sun by the river Arno in a little bar called “Il Borro Tuscan Bistro” that served it’s family’s own produced wine.

A quick refresh and outfit change at the hotel then our “Happy Hour” glass of prosecco and we were off to our Valentine’s evening dinner. We discovered one of the restaurant highlights of our trip was the amazing Sesto on Arno, situated at the top of the Westin Excelsior hotel. The views were breathtakingly amazing as was the delicious food.

We were welcomed with cheeky prosecco cocktails that had adorable fruit birds perched on them. We enjoyed a fabulous bottle of Chianti wine. The 4 course menu with appetisers was delicious especially the desserts that were the highlight. The refresher course pre-dessert consisted of a champagne sorbet and mango coulis that had been sealed in a permeable pouch that made it resemble an egg yolk served with a meringue wafer. Hubby’s dessert was a white chocolate ball filled with strawberry and raspberry ice cream with fresh berries. My dairy-free dessert was an amazingly exotic fruit salad with raspberry sorbet and meringue pieces.

We ate a special set menu for Valentine’s but the restaurant regularly offers dinner tasting menus from 92 euros a head and lunchtime set menu for just 30 euros.

A walk along the Arno River followed by a nightcap cocktail in famous Harry’s bar finished off a wonderfully amazing Valentine’s evening.

Links to restaurants are –

http://www.ilborrotuscanbistro.it/?lang=en

http://www.sestoonarno.com/en

http://www.harrysbarfirenze.com

In Florence, even the graffiti is ancient

We began our first proper morning in Italy with a trip to see the “Duomo” or Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore giving its full name and for our morning exercise, instead of climbing up the inside of the cathedral’s dome, we ascended up the Giotto’s Campanile tower next to it. This gave us stunning views of the city of Florence and also more importantly of the Duomo itself.

I immediately regretted not bringing water and snacks with us as the ascension was much steeper and narrower than expected. Clearly the narrow staircases were only designed for a bellboy to go up and down not huge numbers of tourists, that somehow had to pass each other on the steps, travelling in both directions. At one point I found myself hugging the stone pillar in the centre of the staircase for over 10 minutes as a stream of larger than life tourists squeezed passed me on their way down; one lady slipping almost taking me down with her. There are no handrails or ropes to grab hold of here so if someone slips…. I don’t recommend this venture to anyone who is claustrophobic or afraid of heights and certainly not if you have high blood pressure or heart issues but the view you get from the top is truly amazing!

Once we descended from the Campanile we visited the Baptistery located opposite and still within the Piazza Del Duomo. The Baptistery is one of the oldest and I believe finest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style. The interior is truly divine and it formed the basis for Renaissance architecture. The east doors of it were actually dubbed by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise.

Following a busy morning we stopped for lunch in Trattoria San Lorenzo and it was warm enough for us to sit outside in the sunshine while we ate bruschetta and drink their house Chianti.

After lunch we had a look around the Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore then we wandered to look at Palazzo Strozzi and then the Basilica Santa Croce.

Basilica Santa Croce is the burial place of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo and as such it is known as the Temple of the Italian Glories. Primo Chiostro is the main cloister of Santa Croce and houses the Cappella dei Pazzi, built as the chapter house, completed in the 1470s and designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Florence syndrome

“Have you heard of Stendhal syndrome, that supposed illness that causes sufferers to grow faint at the sight of great beauty? It also goes by the name “Florence syndrome,” as it was first coined after 19th century visitors to Florence were overcome.” (source Italylogue) Well I was soon about to experience this for myself…

We flew with Lufthansa from Manchester via Frankfurt to Florence airport and apart from a slight delay in Frankfurt we arrived into Italy at approximately 7pm.  We jumped into a taxi from the long line waiting outside the airport and with a set fee of 24 euros into the city agreed it was a time effective way to make the most of our first evening.

The trip was a Christmas/Valentine’s and anniversary gift in one so my hubby had pushed the boat out by booking us into a Tower Suite room at the 5 star Golden Tower hotel. The spa hotel was situated in the heart of the Florence a stones throw from the Arno river, approximately one bridge down from the world famous Ponte Vecchio.

Florence city centre has complete UNESCO World Heritage status. The hotel was architecturally stunning itself in keeping with its location featuring beautiful stain glass windows and unique artwork situated within the public areas. Our room had original exposed stone arches, an ornately painted ceiling and an original restored 16th century large wooden door.

After checking into our hotel after a quick freshening up and a welcome glass of prosecco, the hotel offered this every evening along with appetisers as part of their welcoming happy hour 6.30-7.30pm, we headed out for a low-key dinner within a 5 minute stroll from the hotel.

We dined in Restaurant L’Parione that was recommended by the hotel concierge, a charming traditional Italian restaurant where we were seated in the wine cellar that had been converted into an extended dining area that gave it a special ambience. The only negative is that there was an ever so slight odour of drains as we were close to the toilets but I don’t think anyone else in there noticed this.

I was very impressed with the menu in the restaurant, as I had thought a trip to Italy combined with an allergy to cows milk would be a disaster for me but the English menu had clear details of allergens so it was a breeze.

I had a simple ravioli pasta dish with a traditional ragu source that tasted of fresh basil, black pepper and garlic. My husband ordered wild boar tagliatelle and it was a rich delicious dish.

We followed this with a cheese board that comprised only of sheep and goats cheese, which was how it came! A big surprise for someone who usually has to request no cows milk. It seems Florence is more impressed with its sheep and goat cheese than the traditional mozzarella touted in other Italian cities such as Rome. One of the sheep cheeses was with black truffles and it was the nicest cheese I have ever eaten in my life!

A bottle of their local fruity Chianti topped off our first dinner in Italy and after a nighttime stroll along the Arno river with stunning architectural views finished our first night in this most magically beautiful city.

Further Golden Tower hotel information can be seen here http://www.goldentowerhotel.it

Parione Restaurant details can be found here http://www.parione.net/en