Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Tuscany on a Shoestring

If you're looking for an inexpensive holiday somewhere sunny, Italy might not be the first place that springs to mind. And Tuscany in particular can be easily discounted as an unaffordable option, particularly for families. Whoever coined the phrase 'Chiantishire' helped to create a long-standing myth that Tuscany is the sole preserve of wealthy, middle-class ex-pats and beyond the pocket of most ordinary folk.

The reality is that while there certainly are corners of Tuscany that attract a select crowd of Chianti swigging, yacht-owning sorts this isn't the only side of the region.

I spent all my childhood summers on the Tuscan coast, where you'll find a host of unpretentious, family-friendly resorts that deliver great beaches, good value places to enjoy the best of Tuscan cuisine and access to some of the region's most lovely villages and towns. Tuscany also has something for everyone, from mountain scenery in the Appenines to idyllic islands studded with some of the prettiest beaches in the Med. There's history and culture everywhere you look here too, not least in the region's triumvirate of most famous cities - Florence, Siena and Pisa - and you're never far from an amazing plate of pasta or a glass of something delicious. 

If this sounds like your kind of holiday but you're on a limited budget, I'd recommend seeking out a campsite option in Italy. A couple of years ago we stayed at Camping Valle Gaia - bookable through both Eurocamp and Canvas - which makes a great base if you're looking for a budget-friendly option in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. There's a beach nearby too (not the prettiest - the Tuscan coast isn't as scenic as other coastal areas in Italy - but spacious, sandy, safe and ideal for children) and the site is just over 60 km from Pisa airport. 

The innate sense of style that Italians apply to every aspect of life is usually evident in its campsites and Valle Gaia is no exception. It's a given that when in Italy you're never far from a decent restaurant, a good cappuccino or a fresh loaf of bread, and campsites in the country tend to adhere to this principle, meaning you'll often find fantastic restaurants on even the most unassuming of campsites, as well as on-site bakeries where you can pick up a ciabatta or bag of croissants fresh from the oven. You certainly don't rough it when camping in Italy. 

Valle Gaia is a small site and ideal for families with young children, and includes all the obvious attractions: two spacious swimming pools (including one just for little ones), children's play area, tennis courts, bar and two restaurants; one for informal, kid-friendly pizza and ice cream and and a smarter option for more sophisticated dining. We loved the latter, which was reasonably priced and served some absolutely outstanding food including regional specialities such as wild boar and pasta with truffle. It being Italy, even the poshest restaurants are happy to accommodate children and we didn't feel uncomfortable eating here with our (sometimes) energetic children. 

Excursions beyond the campsite are varied. We took a day trip to Pisa for the customary pic propping up the tower and a visit to the stunning cathedral. Be warned that children under 8 can't go up the leaning tower but it's a must-do for older kids and adults. Buy a slice of pizza from a nearby cafe and enjoy it in the shade of the basilica before taking a wander across the Campo Dei Miracoli and delving into the interesting surrounding side streets. 

Other nearby must-sees include Volterra, an attractive hill-top town about 30km away and San Gimignano, an atmospheric walled town steeped in history and dominated by its world-famous medieval towers. 

If you don't mind making a longer trip, Siena is well worth the effort. Its historic centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and boasts one of the world's most famous and distinctive squares, the beautiful, honey-coloured Piazza del Campo. Winding, atmospheric streets lead you to the equally stunning cathedral, and there are lots of other interesting sights and glimpses of Siena's illustrious past around every street corner.

I spent a month here as a language student and would regularly pop into Nannini, a charmingly old fashioned cafe, for a post-lecture pick-me up. It serves the most amazing coffee and pastries and is a good place to soak up a bit of Italian cafe culture and rest weary legs. 

If that's not enough culture for you the Renaissance splendours of Florence are a train-ride away (don't take the car - driving through the city and finding somewhere to park are feats not worth undertaking) but if you're visiting during the summer it will be steaming hot and heaving with tourists...possibly best avoided if you have children in tow. It's a stunning place but its gorgeousness might be lost on you if you visit in peak season.

Fancy sampling Tuscany's world-famous wines? Then head over to Bolgheri, just a short drive from the campsite, where you'll find lots of cantinas where you can drop in and try out a Chianti or Sassicaia. The drive to Bolgheri also takes in some quintessential Tuscan landscape, dotted with stone farmhouses and cypress trees. 

If you're looking for something a bit more beachy, Eurocamp also has campsites on Elba, a tiny island off the coast of Tuscany and home to some lovely, unspoilt beaches and pretty towns and resorts. 

To read more about Camping Valle Gaia and other budget-friendly options in Tuscany, take a look at the Eurocamp website here.


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Easter Adventures In & Around Bristol

The kids went back to school today after a two week holiday and I'm feeling uncharacteristically calm, relaxed and not at all exhausted. Amazing how having a run of good weather can totally change how you feel at the end of school holidays - why can't it always be like this?! Everything's so much easier - and cheaper - when the sun shines, we all rub along a lot better and it's lovely to see two erstwhile pale, snotty children return to school with a bloom of colour in their cheeks, having had plenty of outdoor activity and a good dose of vitamin D.

Thanks to the clement weather, we were able to visit some old favourites and discover some new places in and around Bristol - here are three highlights from our Easter break...

Outdoor golf at Pirate Bay Adventure Golf

Crazy golf with a pirate theme and some interesting ways of traversing the holes. I sometimes struggle to find things that both my kids will enjoy doing, as my eldest is now 10 and quickly growing out of the standard kid activities, while my six year-old isn't quite ready to hang out at the skate park just yet. Crazy golf is therefore a good one, and this fun course was a hit with both my boys. It's an imaginatively designed, 18-hole course with a pirate theme: think sea shanty soundtrack and various pirate paraphernalia decorating the place. What's especially fun are the pirate boats and rafts that you have to climb onto and then pull across the water to get to the next hole.

There's also a cafe on site and dedicated area for children's parties. Adults cost £7.50, children £5 and under 3s are free. 

You can find out more here.

Stately scenery at Dyrham Park

We'd been here before but on that occasion it was cold and wet, everyone was grumpy and there was a melt down incident over something - can't remember what - that brought out visit to a premature close. But with our National Trust membership about to expire, we decided to give this place another go, plus it was a glorious sunny day. Needless to say, second time around our visit was much more successful. Dyrham is a lovely place to while away a sunny afternoon so if you're a member of the NT and in the Bath area, it's well worth a visit. Set in green, rolling hills there are some nice walks to explore and an impressive 17th-century house to wander round. To be honest, we didn't do much aside from set out a picnic rug and enjoy the sunshine while the kids made dens in the trees. But if you're not going to do very much, this is a nice setting in which to be lazy.

Find out more about Dyrham Park here.

Authentic Japanese food at Yume Kitchen

I've mentioned my kids' slightly random culinary preferences before. They're both the sort of children who view a fish finger with suspicion but are quite happy when presented with a barely dead octopus to tuck into. Now, I have no problem with their culinary precociousness at all - I love the fact they have such adventurous palettes. It can just be a bit annoying and expensive some times. For my eldest son, no motorway journey is complete without a stop at the services for M&S sushi. Doesn't matter that it might only be 9 in the morning - motorways and sushi have become inextricably linked in his brain. Then there is his YO Sushi! obsession. It's a fun place to take kids, what with the conveyor belt and funny Japanese pop music in the background. It's just not that wallet friendly so I was excited to finally give the much praised Yume Kitchen a try over the holidays. 

We had a very nice lunch here, enjoying authentic Japanese food (not limited just to sushi)at a very reasonable price tag.Our bill for four, with a mix of sushi and hot, main dishes came in at just below £40. Everything was super fresh and felt more authentic than you might get a sushi chain. The crispy squid, gyoza and beef teriyaki were particularly good, and our two sushi aficionados rated the sushi 'excellent'.

We visited the Cotham branch but there is now a new restaurant in Clifton Village which also does deliveries - find out more here.

I forgot my phone the day we visited, hence no pics of the amazing spread we enjoyed at Yume, but if you'd like to read a more in depth review, with an array of lovely photos, check out Bristol Eating Adventures here.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Spring Beauty

It's at this time of year that the fashion mags are full of features on 'spring cleaning' your beauty regime. But frankly who's got the time to shampoo their makeup brushes, declutter their beauty bags and organise the bathroom cabinet with season-appropriate products? Plus there's the small issue of not necessarily having the cash to fund a little jaunt around Space NK. That said it's this time of year my skin does tend to do some weird stuff, my limbs are their most dry and pallid and I generally look 'peaky' (as my mother regularly reminds me.)Her theory is that the changing of the seasons are responsible for all manner of ills, looking peaky being just one of them. Glancing in the mirror this morning, I do see her point.

Just recently I've made some cost-effective beauty discoveries that I really recommend and which are helping to address some of the aforementioned beauty issues. Not all are bargain-basement cheap, but they do, in my opinion, offer value for money, and might be worth looking into if, like me, you're feeling and looking a bit run-down and want to make some wallet-friendly additions to your beauty cabinet this spring.

1. Alpha H Balancing Cleanser with Aloe Vera

I've been using Alpha H products for about a year now and can't recommend them highly enough. If you have sensitive, reactive skin that erupts with the slightest mishandling, this range is well looking into. According to beauty blogger and skincare expert Caroline Hirons problem skin needs an oil, milk or cream cleanser and anything that foams or is in gel format is a big no no because they break down the acid mantle of your skin, just making inflammation worse. I used to use gels all the time but since making the switch to this creamy, non-lathering cleanser I noticed a change almost instantly. It's brilliant and at £23 for 200ml is not prohibitively expensive. I buy mine from fab online beauty retailer Bath & Unwind which has a reward points system so you can get money off subsequent purchases.

2. First Aid Beauty Daily Face Cream

A light-weight, oil-free moisturiser that is also fragrance free, hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic. What's not to love? It's basically suitable for all skins, including sensitive and acnegenic. A lot of moisturisers I've used in the past - including ones that claim to be non-comedegenic - have brought me out in spots so it's nice to find a product that does what it's meant to do without any annoying side effects. It costs £15.50 from Bath & Unwind.

3. bareMinerals Faux Tan Face

Talking of products that have a propensity to bring skin out in pimples: facial fake tan. Usually pretty horrific. Finding a non-orange facial self-tanner that doesn't render the skin a mass of seething pustules is no mean feat but this product pretty much hits the spot (excuse the pun...)It contains no parabens or artificial oils, which helps keep spots at bay, and develops into an even, light tan that looks natural. It's tinted too so you can see exactly where you're putting it and make sure it's sinking in evenly - a nice bonus as streaky, blotchy faces are not so nice. Highly recommended for adding a touch of colour to sun-starved faces. It costs around £15 from various online beauty retailers.

4. Rodial Brazilian Tan - Light

Moving on to bodies and mine would have a grey, ghostly pallor were it not for this nifty product. I buy this from TK Maxx (they seem to have a constant supply)for around a fiver, which - given Rodial is a 'prestige' brand - is quite a bargain and cheaper than mass market fake tanners. The Light version is jut that - natural rather than TOWIE-style scary. 

5. & Other Stories Fig Fiction Body Scrub

There's something quite cathartic about feeling like your sloughing off dry, moisture-starved winter skin. It's the perfect prep for fake tan, too. There are loads of great scrubs around but for the feel-good factor with just the right amount of 'scrub' (not too harsh, not too weedy) the body scrubs in the & Other Stories range is fantastic. I love all the & Other Stories beauty products and last time I was in London I stocked up on this delicious Fig scented version. You can also buy online and the scrub costs a reasonable £7 (a little goes a long way, too)

6. Dr Stuart Skin Purify Tea

I wanted to give this a mention as it really seems to do what it says on the tin. In conjunction with cutting right down on sugar, going easy on the vino and trying to eat a bit more healthily generally, this tea seems to be aiding a general clearness of skin and feeling of overall well-being. 

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