Making the most of a short break in Milan

03.16.18 Milan (6) Walking tour
The beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan

The northern Italian city of Milan is the perfect city for a short break and its popularity has grown in recent years following the 2015 Expo.  A couple of days were certainly not enough to see everything in Milan but we managed to pack in some of the well-known and lesser-known sights creating a weekend that was pure Italian and gave us glimpses in to the spirit of the city.  These are my highlights for your own visit:

Piazza del Duomo – You won’t want to miss getting to the Piazza del Duomo.  From here you will be overwhelmed by the extravagant and ornate front of Milan’s gothic Duomo.  Once you have taken in the grandeur of the cathedral, look to your left to see the equally stunning entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II 19th century shopping mall.  This is the heart of Milan and a must for every visitor and it is always crowded but gazing at the surrounding splendour you forget the hordes.  Strolling through the Galleria to La Scala is free; visiting the Duomo isn’t and except maybe in the depths of winter involves joining queues.  The experience not to be missed is climbing up to the terraces on the roof of the Duomo and going here at sunset has many advantages.  Late in the day the queues are shorter and the crowds less; we were the next to last group in the lift to the roof [the staff tried to put us off, telling us we might not get up before they closed but we stuck with it] and with no further visitors following us we could find some quiet corners among the many statues that adorn the building.  Reaching the front of the Duomo that faces west and the setting sun, I could hear the music and chatter from the surrounding rooftop bars. The disadvantage of going late at night was that we couldn’t get in to the interior until the next day and so had to queue again [for about an hour and a half] and after so much build up the interior of the Duomo is a bit of a let down.

Coffee and cake in a classic italian Cafe – Pasticceria Marchesi has been making cakes and coffee since 1824 and is worth the expense for the excellent coffee and delicious cakes.  There are three shops in Milan and we visited the charming and smaller cafe near to Sforza Castle.  As lunch time approached the cafe became busy with people coming in for lunch and a swift coffee and the system of ordering from one counter and paying at a till appeared chaotic.  We had been walking all morning and enjoyed a relaxing sit down in the calmer back room so felt we had our money’s worth.

Panzerotti Luine – Eating in Milan is rarely cheap so you need to take the opportunity for something affordable when you can.  For a few Euros you can buy delicious Italian streetfood; fried, baked or sweet panzerotto, a stuffed bread snack.  The classic panzerotto is fried with a mozzarella and tomato filling.

With locals walking tour – Over two-and-a-half hours our guide took us to places we would never have found without her local knowledge and gave us an inside flavour of the city and this proved to be an excellent introduction to Milan.

Rinascente food hall and roof top cafe – I could have spent hours in the food hall at Rinascente department store; it is packed with Italian goodies.  It is also worth climbing up the seventh floor of this store for the roof top cafe.  We visited in the early evening and had a selection of Campari cocktails and snacks for the full Milan experience with a view of the ornate roof line of the Duomo and surrounded by noisy chattering Italians.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – It is an incredible story that this painting on the wall of the Refectory at the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie survived at all.  In its 500-years it has lived through being an armory, prison and animal shelter, as well as bombing and many restorations.  It is claimed that the last restoration in the 1990s took the painting back to its original and it certainly brilliantly and humanly captures a moment in the story of the last supper.

Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore You could spend all your days visiting churches in Milan and you might walk by this unassuming church and not think twice about popping in but make sure you do.  Inside this former convent are such glorious frescoes on every inch of the walls it is worth seeking out.

Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio – Near to the Navigli district and one of the oldest churches in Milan, this church doesn’t have the abundance of frescoes of the Chiesa di San Maurizio but has some interesting features including an early Christian church underneath the existing building.  In the 15th century Portinari Chapel there are colourful frescoes on the ceiling and an ornate ark with the remains of Peter Rosini, known as Peter Martyr or Peter from Verona, the prior of Como.

Naviglio Grande – You can walk or cycle for many kilometres along this canal that once was used by ships bringing the marble for the Duomo in the centre of Milan.  On a rainy morning we attempted to work off some of the calories we had consumed in the cafes, restaurants and bars of Milan by walking some of the canal.  Near to its end the canal area has been gentrified and is now lined with cafes and there are often market stalls.  After working up an appetite we found the canalside Universo Vegano cafe for some delicious and healthy lunch.

Buskers – I like to find time to stop and listen to or watch some of the many street artists wherever we visit and I will happily hand over some change to say thank you for the entertainment.  The street artists of Milan are regulated and are usually high quality artists.

Braidense National Library – Enter the courtyard of the old Palace of the Collegio Gesuitico di Brera, pass the classrooms full of students at the art college and climb the stairs to the library, opened to the public in 1786 thanks to Maria Theresa who considered that Milan needed “an open library for the common use of anyone who wants to cultivate his mind, and acquire new knowledge.”  The peaceful and atmospheric library has shelves of old books and holds temporary exhibitions about some of its collection.

Brera Botanical Garden – Tucked away behind the Braidense National Library we found this small botanical garden famous for its old Ginkgo biloba trees.  Here were signs of spring with blossom on the trees and flowering bulbs.  In summer this would be a cool place to relax that is away from the bustle of the city.

Parco Sempione – Beyond Sforza Castle is this large park that is popular with both visitors and locals.  Covering 116 acres the park has many grand monuments and winding paths among grass that are perfect for a walk.  On our visit there was a fairground in the park with terrifying rides.




What I wish everyone knew about rock music

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What a rock concert looks like when you are only 1.6 m tall

We had a good position in the middle of the floor, safely on the edge of the mosh pit.  In front of me energetic fans ebbed and flowed like waves on the beach as they flowed towards the stage and back.  As the tempo increased the band screamed ‘Jump,’ and these people reached for the roof, briefly levitating and bouncing off each other like human pinball.  I could feel the rhythm of the bass guitar to my core.  ‘Jump as high as you can and try and stay there,’ the band instructed; there was so much energy in the room this seemed possible.  No one was checking their phones or talking about their day at work, everyone was completely in the moment.  A mosh pit might look like chaos but there are rules to keep everyone safe in this bundle of energy; someone fell and my daughter-in-laws strong arms quickly pulled him up before he was crushed, at the end of a song our son waved a handbag he had found in the air until the owner claimed it.

I have written before about my love of loud rock music; the noise, energy and total immersion of the experience.  Academy Three part of the Student Union building in Manchester is a small [holding 470 people] and intimate venue on the third floor.  Turbowolf have a loyal following that made for a great night of heavy rock music but you might be forgiven for never having heard of them and attending one of their gigs is not on everyone’s tick list.  Every person that was there on Friday night was there because they love rock music, not because it was somewhere to be seen and brag about.

We walked home in gentle rain, hot, happy and tired and soaked in mass-produced lager spilt from glasses as fans rushed to join in the fun at the front.  It is a feeling I want to hang on to.


A starling murmuration is the Blackpool headliner

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The murmuration of starlings over Blackpool’s North Pier

Continuing the theme of a winter that is full of sunshine [yes I know we’ve just had a very wintry week] we have managed to get away in our blue campervan at various times this last few months in the sunshine.  In truth walking through the carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall in Bretherton near Preston you don’t need the sunshine to make you feel good; the bright white snowdrops bring their own light and it is impossible to be unhappy surrounded by flowers that mean spring is just around the corner.  We chose another sunny day to visit the wonderful Cobble Hey Farm on the slopes of the Bowland Fells looking over Garstang.  Here a beautiful woodland garden has been created that shows the full range of different varieties of snowdrops; snowdrops with yellow stems, tall snowdrops and early flowering snowdrops are all here.  In the barn we also met our first spring lamb.

Before Storm Emma arrived we spent a couple of sunny days around Blackpool.  It was cold in the clear weather and we had a much better time than we expected.  The Fylde coast around Blackpool is brimming with attractions from trams to public art, from history to the pleasure beach.  We walked along the front taking in all the old and the new, munching freshly-made doughnuts from a seafront stall.  Despite all Blackpool’s sights, the best show by far was the evening spectacular of the murmuration of starlings over the North Pier.  Thousands of starlings swooped in unison around the pier and the Irish Sea creating black clouds in the sky before roosting.  The starling’s captivating display was even more impressive than the stunning sunset that had hundreds of cameras clicking.

Away from the brashness of Blackpool we visited Fleetwood, a traditional seaside resort that I remember from childhood visits.  I have always loved the Knott End Ferry, The Mount and the sense of a bygone age that Fleetwood has.  I had relatives who lived in Rossall near Fleetwood and my family would house-swap with them for a week in the summer; they got a chance to meet up with relatives still living in north Staffordshire, we got a cheap week by the seaside.  In 1969 I also stayed there for a week with my Grandmother while she house and dog sat.  I treasured time with my Grandmother but this was a memorable trip for two particular reasons; firstly my Grandmother allowed me to stay up and watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and secondly I found a wallet stuffed with money on the wide and generally empty Rossall Beach.  My Grandmother took me and the wallet to Fleetwood Police Station where the Police Officer emptied the sandy and wet notes on to a sheet of newspaper laid across his counter so they could dry out.  A few weeks later the grateful owner sent me ten shillings [a small fortune for a nine-year old] as a reward.

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Carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall

Camping comfort food: dhal or lentil curry

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Dhal simmering in the pan

While the weather is below freezing I want to eat warming comfort food that is quick to make and delicious to eat.  My go-to recipe in these circumstances is lentil curry.  The recipe is below but it is a versatile dish that you can make your own and add to as suits you.  This is made from ingredients we always have in the store cupboard either at home or in the campervan and for me lentil curry is the ultimate comfort food, you can eat it from a bowl with just a fork [or even a spoon], it is warming and spicy and tasty and memories of all those other lentil curries from the past linger around it.

Dhal / lentil curry for two

Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add two good handfuls (maybe 200 grams) of dried red lentils and a couple of bay leaves.  Boil and skim off any white scum as they boil and top up the water if necessary until the lentils are soft [about 20 minutes].  For this recipe you don’t have to boil the lentils dry.

Remove the bay leaves and put the lentils to one side [I put them in a bowl in the campervan and reuse the same pan for the next stage].

Fry a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil until it starts to catch and brown slightly and then add spices to suit you.  At home I use a teaspoon each of ground tumeric, ground cumin and ground coriander, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a pinch of chili flakes or a fresh chili chopped and maybe a little fresh ginger if I have some in.  In the campervan I usually only have a garam masala mix and fresh garlic to hand.  Fry these for a minute or two and then add the lentils to the pan.  You are now more or less finished but you can garnish the curry with fresh coriander if you have this available.

For variety I sometimes add a couple of chopped tomatoes to the onion or a chopped courgette.  Sometimes I add some finely chopped spinach at the end and this adds some colour.

I serve this wonderful simple food with either plain boiled rice or naan bread or home-made chapattis, the choice is yours.  Not only is this quick to make it is also a cheap eat.  In the campervan naan bread keeps the washing up to just one pan which is a win-win.  Enjoy!

Doorways & windows around Europe: some ramblings



Looking through my photographs from recent trips in our campervan one theme stands out.  I have to acknowledge that I can’t help myself; I am always taking photographs of doors and windows.  You might ask how many photographs of doorways and windows one travel writer needs and the answer is clearly an infinite number.  Wherever I am, either at home in Salford and Manchester or in a new village or city, I look for the detail in doorways and check out buildings above the shops to see the windows and the details on the buildings.  This got me thinking, what is it about doors and windows that appeals to me.  I am certainly drawn to an unusual and beautiful doorway and window and I am a real sucker for shutters and stained glass.  But is it just the aesthetics of the doors and windows themselves or is it something more?  Windows and doors are portals to an inner world that is often private.  Am I secretly longing to know what is behind the openings or am I more interested in what might emerge from those doors and windows?

The Romans had a god for many things, including doorways.  Janus, usually shown as a two-faced god, looks to the future and the past and was also the god of beginnings endings and transitions; the Romans understood the lure and significance of the doorway.    Doors, although often beautiful, are closed; they act as the border between the open street and private space.  A closed door has potential but what is hidden beyond may be good and exciting or it may be evil.  The locked door is a familiar metaphor in many tales; we have to get beyond these closed doors to reach something we are seeking.  A locked door is both a temptation into the unknown and a barrier to access; knocking on an unfamiliar door is always daunting.   Doors have the duality of Janus, being closed and open, locked and unlocked, positive and negative and these contradictions are intriguing.

In contrast, windows are transparent, we can see inside and out through the glass.  Windows are also a public stage for beautiful objects; in our 80-year old flat we have wide windowsills and we use these to display favourite objects, a single ornament and an ancient inherited plant in a pot.  By placing these at the public face of the house we are sharing them with the wider world.  Windows are the eyes of the house and the items in the window give a glimpse behind those eyes.

Standing and staring out of a window is a way to travel to other places without moving from home.  Our flat has lots of windows that let the morning and evening sun flood in to the rooms and from these windows I watch the outside world, creating stories in my head.  Whenever we arrive somewhere new the first thing I do [before I check out the interior] is go to the windows and look at the view; I think this is me getting my bearings in a new place, finding out where the sun rises and who I can see and be seen by.  Looking up in a new city I like to imagine myself standing at some of the beautiful windows I see; I wonder how life in this street looks from above and what it would be like to live there.  For me windows only represent the positive; openings to different perspectives and portals for fresh air and sunlight.

The photographs in this post are really just a small selection from my collection of doorways and windows.  The evidence of my addiction is right before your eyes!


How can you afford holidays when you live on a low budget

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Verona in 1991

We all prioritise what we spend our money on to have the life we want.  You won’t be surprised to read that I have always prioritised holidays over pretty much all discretionary spending.  Despite living on an average or low income for 40-years we have always travelled.  Firstly, some background … when I first started work and living alone I had little money to spare so marriage to Mr BOTRA was a big plus financially [and in many other ways].  Even with below average salaries we were much better off living as a couple.  We had our son in the Thatcher years and so received only a few weeks maternity pay, had to fight for one week of paternity leave, received no Family Tax Credits and the only state help we received was Family Allowance that was frozen in the late 1980s.  And yet we managed to afford holidays, how did we do this?

Through all those years we prioritised holidays over living in expensive houses, buying new furniture and cars and posh frocks.  This was our choice and whereas we would probably be better off now if we had made different decisions no one can ever take all those holiday memories away from us.  We had a ‘big’ holiday every year and these were often adventurous holidays abroad.  After paying the mortgage and the utilities, holidays were our next priority and we saved a set amount every month that was earmarked specifically for holidays.  This amount was put in to a dedicated savings account and such was our determination to explore foreign places that we never dipped in to this money for other financial emergencies.

Our holidays were never expensive and luxurious trips, it was always the travelling that we were interested in.  We enjoyed camping and before our baby was born we bought a high quality tent and acclimatised him to camping from being a toddler.  We chose wisely, buying a Saunders Spacepacker lightweight back-packing tent, widely recognised as the best available in the 1980s and beyond.  We could carry this and our ‘gear’ for our trip in two big rucksacks.  When our son outgrew our shared Spacepacker we bought him his own.

Travelling and seeing new places was what mattered to us, taking walks costs nothing and our holidays were about hiking in the mountains and enjoying fresh air and new experiences.  The budget rarely ran to eating out; the exception was our trip to what was then Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.  Back then eating out was so cheap in those countries we could indulge.  We slipped up when we visited the Black Forest in Germany the following year, assuming the same budget as we had spent in Czechoslovakia and finding out that Germany was much more expensive than eastern Europe!  With no credit card to prop us up we had to stay within budget and it was a tight fortnight.  We discovered Germany’s budget supermarkets, spent the days walking, playing in the parks and visiting free museums and pitched up on a scruffy, anarchic and most importantly cheap campsite; it was an interesting trip.

It was 1991 when we first went abroad to Italy [see the photograph above] and this trip set the pattern.  We took the train to Verona, which had been on my list for many years and I thought I had arrived in heaven.  Camping Castel San Pietro above the town turned out to be the perfect place for two young parents and their five-year old child.  Set inside ancient walls this was a relaxed, welcoming and slightly quirky campsite.  From here we made our way on public transport to the Dolomites and spent our days walking in the dramatic and unbeatable mountain scenery.

As well as these train and backpacking holidays we would visit Scotland every Easter, sharing the cost of a large self-catering house with friends made it affordable and we would have numerous weekends away with the tent in the UK.  These were the days before Facebook but if we had been able to post about our holiday activity you would have thought we had loads of money!

These adventures and trips to all corners of Europe would not have been possible without that discipline of regular saving over twelve months.  We didn’t consider ourselves natural savers and we certainly didn’t save for anything else at this time, there was very little spare.  Our desire to travel gave us the motivation and we continued this monthly saving plan even as we became more financially comfortable.

Think Save Retire recently blogged about earmarking your money a well-timed post as I was drafting this.  Completing Steve’s statement clarified for me that holidays have always been our priority and made me realise how we continue to make sure that our money supports that priority.





Three more small steps to giving up plastic: Update #4

A basket of cloths

1. Toilet rolls

We welcomed in 2018 by receiving a box of 48 toilet rolls from Who Gives A Crap.  This company are trying to make the world a better place one toilet roll at a time.  Their toilet paper comes wrapped in paper, not plastic and most importantly it does the job [we bought the premium 100% bamboo rolls].  Who Gives A Crap started four-years ago thanks to a crowd funding campaign and I heard about them thanks to blogs written by people who are way ahead of me in their pursuit of giving up plastic.  Who Gives A Crap’s toilet rolls are from recycled paper or from sustainable bamboo and they donate 50% of their profits to organisations such as WaterAid to help build toilets and improve sanitation in countries that don’t have access to a toilet.

2. Re-usable bags for fruit and vegetables

Apart from toilet rolls [and I just can’t go there] my current interest is in finding items we can re-use rather than use and bin, as much as it in finding items that are plastic-free.  We have invested in six  re-usable mesh bags for tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, small oranges and other fruit and vegetables we buy loose.  I keep three at home in the bike pannier that is used for shopping trips and three in the campervan.  I have come to the conclusion that re-using our own bags is preferable to even using paper bags and so bought these bags and keep them handy so there is no excuse to use anything else.  I found the mesh draw-string bags on Ebay [I think they are also sold for separating laundry items].  The staff in our local supermarket were happy to peer in them before weighing and they are light and easy to wash if you need to, so these are a big win.

3. Re-usable alternatives to kitchen roll

We are not big kitchen roll users, we always have a damp cloths [torn up clothes or towels] hanging around the kitchen for small spills.  But we always have a roll in the kitchen for things like mopping up bigger spills and drying aubergine that has been salted and rinsed.  To prevent even this small usage we now have a basket of dry cloths in the kitchen window [see top photo].  These are a combination of torn up old towels, old face cloths and some miscellaneous new reusable cloths we had in the cupboard.  This makes it really easy to grab a dry and clean cloth when ever it is needed and then throw them in the washing machine to be used again.

The toilet rolls arrived wrapped in paper and in a cardboard box