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.




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!


You can’t get too much winter in the winter

2018 Feb Lowther Shap and Preston (20).JPG
Lowther Castle in Cumbria is a stunning ruin

Retirement has completely changed my experience of winter and given the season a different character that is new and refreshing.  I have always dreaded the winter and would become quite low in November as the days got shorter and colder.  But now we are retired and no longer tied to just two days of freedom we can take off for a day trip or camping tour as soon as sunshine is forecast.  This flexibility means that winter starts to feel like a succession of fantastic frosty and sunny days and is suddenly much more enjoyable and fun.  Last week we spotted another window of opportunity to make the most of the blue skies and we headed north.  After some mooching around the border city of Carlisle with its red sandstone castle and marvellous museum, we visited the dramatic ruin of Lowther Castle whose roof was removed in the 1950s to save the estate from crippling taxation.  The castle and gardens have been recently opened up and are a fantastic place for a day out at any time of year.

We returned south via another ruin, Shap Abbey.  Set in an idyllic and peaceful valley the remains of this ancient abbey are open to the public, although only one tower remains from the original buildings.  From the village of Shap we had views to the Lake District fells dusted in snow and in the sunshine the north-west of England showed off its most beautiful side.

We popped in to Preston for old times sake and were pleased to see the hot potato and parched peas stall [the original street food] was still doing business in the Flag Square.  Continuing south to the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire we had a great day walking in more sunshine.  Then the weekend arrived and with it the drizzle.  We met friends for a pub lunch and a walk and had a lovely afternoon thanks to excellent waterproofs but it would have been better if the fine weather had blessed those working folk too.

PS the quote is from Robert Frost.



Sharing a marvellous vegan [and fat-free] fruit cake recipe

2018 Feb Lowther Shap and Preston (1).JPG
Vegan fruit cake

With a few days winter camping planned I thought we needed some wholesome sustenance to ward off the winter chill.  This delicious fruit cake is easy to make [although it does take a bit of pre-planning] and keeps well for around five days.  I first made this cake by soaking the fruit in tea but starting using whisky to use up some we had in the cupboard.  I found that the whisky gives the cake a real flavourful punch and it is going to be hard to go back to cold tea when the surplus whisky has gone.  Having a cake in the campervan is comforting and helps us to save money as it encourages us to have tea and cake in the ‘van rather than stopping at a tea shop [too often].

So here is my recipe for a vegan tea or whisky fruit cake


  • 225 grams of flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 70 grams of sugar
  • 1/2 mashed banana [60 grams] or you can use one egg if having a vegan cake isn’t important to you
  • 250 mls whisky or brewed black tea
  • 300 grams of your favourite mixed dried fruit [I like a mixture of cranberries and sultanas]
  • 60 mls of soya milk [you can use cow’s milk]
  • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
  • Pinch of salt


  • The day before, put the dried fruit in a bowl, pour over the whisky or brewed black tea and leave overnight to soak.
  • The next day preheat the oven to 180C [gas mark 4] and line a baking loaf tin [the recipe has no oil so it needs the paper to stop it sticking].
  • In a mixing bowl sift in the flour, salt, baking powder and mixed spice.  Add the sugar and mix well, breaking any lumps.  Make a well in the centre and add the mashed banana and the milk.  Add the dried fruit and any remaining liquid.  Mix well.  You should have a soft mixture, add a little more milk if it feels too dry.
  • Pour the mixture in to the loaf tin and bake for 40 minutes to one hour and a skewer comes out clean.  Cool and leave a day before you eat it if you can.  The cake keeps well in a tin.



My journey through travel writing

One of our campervan mottos

I don’t just write travel articles, I am also an enthusiastic reader of travel books.  As I read I am in awe of travel writers who can string together more than the 2,000 word limit of my articles and still hold my attention, be well-written, informative and entertaining; what stamina and discipline that must take.  I immerse myself in these armchair journeys to the familiar and the exotic through the pages of a good travel book and I have many favourites.  For me, good travel writing is not a guidebook [although I read these too] or a series of facts about a place; good travel writing is about stories and experiences, it is about how a place made someone feel, it is about tales told honestly and it is about personal journeys.  In the hands of a good travel writing I feel I am sitting on the author’s shoulder and I am along for ‘The glory of the ride.’

My reading of travel writing started as a young teenager.  With a passion for reading I soon exhausted the children’s section of the small town library near to my home and so [with some hesitation as I wasn’t sure if it was allowed] I furtively moved across the room to the adult books.  At the end of two tall rows of books by a large warm radiator I found a little-visited corner where I could browse unnoticed and here was the library’s small travel section.  Amazingly there were gems here and in particular I discovered two Ethel Mannin books; An Italian Journey from 1974 about her travels around northern Italy that captivated my imagination and started my love affair with Italy and her 1960s American Journey, telling tales from her travels by Greyhound around an America that was far from the glitzy American dream I saw on the TV.  I am sure I missed much of the subtlety of her writing, I knew nothing of Ethel Mannin and her politics and little of the world beyond Staffordshire and yet the travellers tales and adventures of a lone woman both touched me and inspired me.  It was some years later that I discovered Dervla Murphy and her individual style of travel writing and I have followed her on her numerous and exciting journeys ever since.  Dervla Murphy has an honest style that is never sentimental.  She is such a fantastic listener and gatherer of individual stories and she weaves historical information and personal narratives so well I feel I have been there with her every step of the way.

Some time ago World Hum compiled a list of their top 30 favourite travel books and I took a look to see if any of my own ‘must read’ books were on there and to look for ideas for new travel books to read.  Paul Theroux, Norman Lewis, Bill Bryson, Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor all make the list and are excellent choices that I have loved reading.  Others such as Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck are writers I enjoy reading but think of as novelists rather than travel writers, so I added their books to my list.  There are other titles and authors I’ve not come across and I have been looking at these; up to now I have added Europe, Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger to my wish list.

That young teenager had ambitions to be a writer but, despite my reading, I only thought of novels as the way to earn money as a writer and I lacked the imagination for such an undertaking.  Forty-years later in my 50s I realised that ambition and became a published writer.  My first travel article was published in 2013 and the thrill each time I see my writing and photographs in print has never faded.  That said, there may be travel writers with glamorous lives but for me it is less razzle-dazzle and more about typing.  The time I spend travelling versus the time sat behind a desk researching, writing and editing [words and photographs] is about 1:10.

I will never be as accomplished a writer as my heroes but I try to tell readers a story that every motorhomer can relate to.  This narrative combined with the 2,000 word limit excludes many of my travel experiences and anecdotes and the editing process takes many hours.  In these articles I am balancing practical information with my desire to paint a comprehensive pictures of the places we visit by describing the sights, smells and sounds I have experienced.

These ten tips for writing travel articles are a good and useful start for anyone who is thinking of writing their own travel articles but firstly check out this article 15 signs you are born for travel writing to see if travel writing is for you.  The tips made me aware that I rarely include any direct dialogue in my travel articles.  I can see how this can strengthen the intimacy of my stories and my current resolution is to try and bring this in to as many future articles as I can!





Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

09.14 Vila Praia de Ancora campsite
Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!


Discovering the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Lake District

Beautiful Blackwell Arts and Crafts House above Windermere

In retirement our winter trips are being dictated by the weather forecast rather than the weekend and this freedom is liberating.  With some cold sunny weather forecast last week we baked a cake, packed some warm clothing and set off for the Lake District.  Windermere is easy to get to from Salford and we were soon soaking up the views along the lake from Orrest Head, pottered by the Windermere and seeking a cosy pub to warm up in.

In the afternoon we visited the lovely Blackwell Arts and Crafts House.  We had been here before many years ago and since then the staff and volunteers have been busy and many improvements have been made.  Built by M H Bailie Scott as a holiday home for Edward Holt, this is a beautiful example of an Arts and Crafts house that retains many of its original features that, in keeping with the movement, are both decorative and practical.  The door handles are leaf-shaped, the window catches are interesting.  There is attractive stained glass and plaster work too but just as important, the atmosphere is relaxed, rather than stuffy and visitors are encouraged to linger.

After being a holiday home the house became a school and then offices before being bought by a Trust in 1999 and it opened to the public in 2001.  The White Drawing Room has slender columns with decorative capitals, a sunny aspect over the lake and is a room where the sunlight dances around the room.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in Britain in the 1880s and spread across Europe and America.  As the V&A writes:

‘It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialisation: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art.’

The Arts and Crafts Movement has strong links with the Lake District.  The three founder members, William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and Phillip Webb were supported by  George Howard from Naworth Castle near Carlisle and he used William Morris’ wallpapers in many of his properties.  John Ruskin, a Lake District resident, strongly influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement.  He considered machine-made items to be dishonest and that craftmanship was linked to dignity.

Tile detail from a fireplace at Blackwell