Saturday, 31 October 2015

Woolley Grange, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Remember when you were a small child and you'd be taken somewhere new. You might have felt excited and a little tiny bit anxious, but mostly incredibly curious. You just couldn't wait to explore... Well, if you'd been lucky enough to be taken to Woolley Grange, your curiosity would have been well rewarded.

It's a country-house hotel, created on the premise that, just because you now have children of your own, that's no reason to give up any of the luxury and comfort you knew beforehand. But, unlike many hotels that say 'family friendly', at Woolley Grange, children are positively welcomed. There's nowhere they mustn't go or things they shouldn't touch. There's even a friendly resident hotel dog, Rex, who wanders about looking for a stroke or to have his belly rubbed. That doesn't mean grown-ups have to compromise though: there's an on-site spa with pool, sauna, steam room and professional staff on hand to provide treatments; a comfy living room filled with overstuffed sofas and panelled walls where you can take afternoon tea, a pre-dinner cordial or an after dinner nightcap – or just play cards, if the mood strikes you.

Meanwhile, your children might be in the supervised Woolley Bear's Den, being entertained and enlightened by the trained Mary Poppins types; hanging out in the unsupervised Hen House, playing pool, table football or air hockey; or just exploring – of which there's plenty to do. In fact, you might want to explore with them...

Inside, you could come across unusual carousel animals to clamber on, find a stuffed bear to dance with (he's on a wheeled stand) and all sorts of interesting things to stop and look at.

Outside, the grounds have been cleverly divided up into different areas that pique the imagination. Will you spot a fairy in the Fairy Garden? Come take a look... Or what about a swim in the outdoor pool (open in the warmer months)? A game of football, a jump on the trampoline, a swing on the tree swing...? Or a visit to the Good Life Garden, where a clutch of little shed-houses need looking into and the eggs from the free-range chickens might need collecting. Oh, and then there's the helicopter landing pad. You drove here? Never mind, there's always next time.

Remember to pick up the Sheep Trail rhyme. There are eight sheep dotted about the house and grounds, devised and created by the head gardener – can you spot them all?  We found two without much effort, but where are the other five...? We'll just have to come back and have another look...

The hotel is just outside the pretty Cotswold town of Bradford-on-Avon, which still has one-off stores rather than chains, and not just the pretty Avon wending through it, but the Kennet & Avon canal as well. You can do a very reasonable walk from town up the canal to Avoncliff, where a feat of 1797 (yes, they knew how to do this way back then) engineering sees the canal go over the top of the river and train line in a bit of Esher-esque craziness.

Cross over, enjoy the views and take the little lane back toward town, admiring the countryside and, eventually, lovely stone houses on either side. It's not an overly long hike, maybe an hour or two, depending on your pace. In fact, even a child could do it.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Puglia tour, part II, with Inghams Italy

If it's Wednesday, it must be Matera, the third oldest town in the world. Yes, you read that right. To qualify, it must be a place continuously lived in since it was settled and this hilltop, cave-pocked place has been occupied since about 10,000BC.

It's the middle of the week and our Inghams tour group has started to gel. I'm on my own this particular day and a number of the others kindly take me under their wing, so I don't actually feel alone at all. Some folks are now sitting together for dinner, we've all made contact with one other and there's plenty of chat and laughs inside our coach – helped along by our very jolly guide.

What's that? You can't see any caves in these pictures? The reason for this is that, as the inhabitants excavated the soft rock, they would use it to fashion house-like fronts. Inside, where thousands of people lived until the 1950s, the rooms were most definitely caves and quite small – think your front room plus a couple of alcoves – in which lived families of up to a dozen, plus the family donkey (transportation), pig (meat), goat (milk), chickens (eggs), dog and cat, with no running water or sanitation. Hence, for better or worse, a forced evacuation took place mid-20th century into social housing elsewhere in town. Nowadays, a number of the cave houses are available on long leases from the government and part of the deal is that leasees must – at considerable cost – do them up to strict building codes. So, you can stay in one overnight if you like and there is also one which we visited that shows how people lived in them (so, in case you weren't sure, that horse-cum-donkey is not real...).

After our very knowledgeable local guide let us loose for lunch, I found a fabulous terrace restaurant, Il Terrazzino, with a spectacular view. And the food was good too, though I stuck to a simple primo piatto rather than a full meal.

Our final guided day was to Ostuni, another beautiful, whitewashed, fortified, maze-like town. Why such a confusing street layout? To flummox invaders, of course!

From here we were taken to the idyllic, family-run, small production (only 200,000 bottles a year) Vetrère vineyard and winery. Two very beautiful sisters explained how it all worked – their mother and aunt, also sisters, run the place and both families live in the picturesque main house.

We were served a wonderful wine tasting in a shady glade accompanied by homemade focaccia, pasta and a range of delicious fruits, all grown on the premises, for dessert. I can now cross 'try a prickly pear' off my bucket list...

From here, all slightly jollier for the refreshment!, we were taken off to Il Frantolio, where they produce olive oil – and olive face creams, shampoo, conditioner and a few other olive oily things. The energetic and entertaining owner did a wonderful mime for us on how to taste olive oil and what to look for. It was so good, in fact, that we were all laughing at the jokes before our guide even translated.

Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel but, as a special treat, we were taken out into the olive groves so that we could photograph these extraordinary trees. Because by now I didn't just like olive trees – I love them. They're like people, each absolutely an individual and some in this region are up to 1,000 years old.

Friday is a 'free' day and, while most of the others in our group have decided to take it easy by the pool and beach, we're going to do a little exploring. To this end, we hire a car through the hotel, as it turns out a number of rentals are kept in the parking lot, which makes it all very easy. Our goal? To get over to the Ionian Sea side of Puglia.

It doesn't take too long, especially once we put the city-like Taranto (which we nicknamed Tarantula for absolutely no reason) behind us. We're glad we took the trouble. Soft white sand, Caribbean blue water and gorgeous summer-type weather, so that we stop and have a swim.

A further drive down this western coast and we come to a seafood restaurant on the water which – along with delicious, crispy, flavoursome squid – has the best paper napkins I've ever seen. A map! And the restaurant name. If you come down here, stop at Sant Isodoro and head for the corner table overlooking the sea.

By now we were on a mission to get to the very tip of Puglia, where the Ionian meets the Adriatic sea by the lighthouse at Leuca. Would there be a difference in the waters' colours? Would we see the join where they met? Do I let you in on the answers to these questions...?

I can tell you this: by the end of our guided week, I felt as if I really knew Puglia, had met its people, tasted its produce straight from the land and seen how varied and beautiful a place it is. I certainly wasn't ready to leave, so I guess that means I'll be back!

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Puglia with Inghams Italy

If, like me, you've never been on an escorted tour holiday, you might be wondering a few things, like, what is it like and is it for me? Obviously, I don't know what every one offers, but here's a little taste of what an Ingham's Italy holiday in Puglia is like...

Our hotel is the very Italian-chic del Levante, all white marble, with blue and white decor. Also, everything is very clean and airy, with plenty of floor-to-ceiling glass that brings the outside in. It has a large pool for grown-ups, plus a small shallow one for children, though there were very few of these when we visited in October. But, even better than a pool – to my mind – is that it's right on the sandy beach (with lifeguard), which has umbrellas and lounge chairs. And have I mentioned the poolside bar/cafe? Handy for a snack, cup of tea, cocktail....

What's Puglia? It's the region, made up of six provences that make up the heel of Italy's boot, pointing out toward Albania and Corfu. If you're familiar with Tuscany, forget about it and think more southern Spain with a little Greece sprinkled in. And think olive trees. In fact, think 60 million of them, as that's how many there are here. There are also a bizillion* churches and cathedrals, several thousand trulli houses and a good number of beautiful old towns.

We arrived on Saturday, with our first day out on Sunday and the perhaps unsurprising truth is, being driven around on a coach, with a jolly, knowledgeable tour guide, is actually very relaxing and a great way to see everything.

Things you don't have to worry about: transportation, parking, not speaking the language, not knowing the best places to go and not really knowing what you're looking at.

Our first stop was Lecce – tagline: 'The Florence of the south' – and arrived seemingly before everyone else, as we pretty much had the mellow karst-stone-built town to ourselves for quite some time. Highlights included the Roman amphitheatre, only excavated in 1938 when they started building nearby. Can you imagine? It was under the street and no one knew...

Next, we headed down the coast to Otranto, built on a wall overlooking the Caribbean-blue water of its harbour and, lucky us, it was hot enough to actually strip off and dive in, as one of our number (who shall remain nameless) did.

As beautiful as the water is, the town – like so many in this region – has known centuries of invasion, so it has imposing fortifications which, now that they're not needed, simply add to the city's beauty.

Even if the sea and the castle-like bastion didn't do it for you, the cathedral has one last gift: the largest, bar none, mosiac any of us had ever seen. It covers the entire floor of the building and depicts a tree with all sorts of people, creatures and animals on its branches. Everyone one from Adam and Eve to Alexander the Great gets a look in.

Back at del Levante, we ate a hearty dinner, played a bit of pool and listened to the man-and-guitar entertainment – and looked forward to day two...

I'm going to say something about the food here. Breakfasts at the hotel are very hearty affairs: eggs – scrambled, boiled or fried; bacon; croissants; pastries; at least three kinds of bread; yogurt; fruit – fresh and in syrup; cheeses; deli meats; tomatoes and, my new favourite drink: blood orange juice. I'm sure there's more out on that buffet, but I just can't remember.

Then there's dinner, also at the hotel, served Italian style. That is, a salad buffet, followed by a primo piatti – which means pasta, soup or risotto  – and then the secondo, which is a choice of four things, including a fish dish and a vegetarian choice, and then dessert. It's always very good, but last night was the winner so far: a sea bass that was hands down the best I've ever had.

And so on to day two, which had us visiting three local towns, each with something unique to offer.

Martina Franca is not, as the name might suggest, a woman, but a town, named after both St Martin and the word 'franca', which, our guide told us, means 'tax free'. Well, not any more, but once upon a time. Now, it's simply terribly pretty.

Alberobello is the one stuffed with trulli houses, the little stone dwellings from circa 1400, from which you might expect Smurfs or, at the least, Hobbits to come waddling out of. They're UNESCO listed and you can rent one for a night or two, but very few are lived in full time.

Final stop of the day was Locorotondo. (Don't you love these names? They're all so sing-song and just roll off the tongue. No wonder we all wish we were speaking Italian...) The name means 'place that's round' (loco = place, rotondo = round), because the streets all go round in a circle around the – you guessed it – church.

By now we were ready for a day off, which was spent very happily by the pool and walking along the coast to nearby Torre Canne, where we watched a pair of fisherman reel in their net.

So, roughly halfway through the week and what have I gained so far? Fascinating information, well-thought out itineraries, beautiful memories (and photographs), a lot of fun and probably about 10lbs, but I'm not going to worry about that just yet...

*This is a rough estimate and not a figure to be quoted ;)