With a nose like a Bloodhound, I have a pretty strong sense of smell – my friends joke that I can sniff out someone eating an orange within a 100m radius. There’s truth in their jokes though, unfortunately – and I hate oranges. When I wrote about my visit to the Chouara Tannery in Fez, I mentioned how certain scents can conjure up feelings (both good and bad) and helped me reminisce about the places I’ve been around the world.
But smell isn’t my only sense that brings back memories for me. My taste buds have a knack of remembering things I’ve eaten on my travels, too. One little bite or sip can have me back tasting moussaka in Paphos, ceviche in Cartagena or Guinness in Dublin, long after I’ve returned to the UK.
In this instance, on a damp autumnal Sunday afternoon in London, it was the roasted rosemary and olive oil flavours of freshly baked focaccia that reminded me of my trip to Italy, almost 10 years ago…
My five days in Italy.
Back in October 2010, I took my first trip (and only trip to date) to Italy. I spent five days with my friend Melissa, who had recently taken up a teaching post at the International School of Siena and relocated to Italy at the end of the summer.
It was half term for Melissa, so we had five days of hanging out, being tourists and exploring the surroundings, drinking copious amounts of wine and eating a lot of Italian food. There was fresh pasta smothered in passata and Parmesan, stone-baked pizzas covered with olives, ham and stringy mozzarella, and of course, warm focaccia rolls topped with a tomato and garlic brushetta mix.
My taste buds will never forget Italy, despite spending such a short amount of time there, so long ago.
My arrival into Italy was chaotic to say the least. In fact, the chaos started before I’d even boarded the plane, with my dad taking me to the wrong airport, and consequently I almost missed my flight. But that’s another story for another day.
When I eventually did touchdown on terra ferma, it was at Pisa airport, trading a freezing cold Friday morning in London for a warm, muggy afternoon in the Tuscan city. It was my first trip travelling hand luggage only, so I’d made the rookie traveller mistake of layering up every item of clothing I’d brought with me, wearing it on the flight over in an attempt to avoid EasyJet’s extortionate baggage charges. Do you remember that Friends scene, with Joey wearing everything Chandler owned? “Could I be wearing anymore clothes?!” Yeah, that was me.
Almost seven hours after leaving home, sweaty and weary from the early start, I was greeted at the airport arrivals by Melissa. Following a quick freshen up in the airport bathroom, and an even quicker coffee, we set off in search of adventure. Even back in 2010, though I’d yet to be bitten by the travel bug, my sense of wanderlust knew no bounds. At the age of 23, Italy was only the fifth country I’d ever been to in my whole life – who’d have thought that I’d visit another 25 in the next seven years, managing to smash a self-set challenge of 30 countries before 30?
An afternoon in Pisa.
Taking the train straight from the airport to Pisa city centre, Melissa and I spent a few hours mooching around the market stalls, stopping for a coffee at a kerbside cafe, chowing down on a few slices of pizza and battling our way through the throng of tourists trying to snap that perfect Pisa-pushing picture. I’d not been in Italy long and was already in love.
Pisa, once a power maritime city rivalling Genoa and Venice, now claims its fame from an architectural project gone terribly wrong. The Leaning Tower of Pisa (or ‘Torre Pendente’ in Italian) is one of Italy’s signature sights. It lives up to its name by inclining a whopping 3.9 degrees off the vertical. At 56m high, the tower is officially the Duomo’s campanile, and took nearly 200 years to construct. Though it wasn’t completely straight when it was unveiled in 1372, over time the angle of the incline – caused by a layer of weak subsoil – steadily worsened, until it was finally halted by a major stabilisation project in the 1990s.
But the world-famous Leaning Tower isn’t the only noteworthy sight in the city of Pisa.
Education has been an integral part of the city’s economy for years, causing students from across the country (and Europe) to compete for places in its elite university. This has resulted in the city centre boasting a vibrant cafe and bar scene, placed between well-maintained Romanesque buildings, Gothic churches and Renaissance piazzas. At night there’s a lively street life scene dominated by locals rather than tourists, a charm you won’t discover if you restrict your visit to just Piazza dei Miracoli and that famous leaning tower.
A day exploring Rome…
I’m a big advocate of weekends away and maximising your holiday allowance. I’ve even been to Denmark in a day, managing to tick off most of the must-see sights of Copenhagen in just six hours. However I’ll be the first to put my hands up and say that one day in Rome just isn’t enough. Especially if that one day is “piove a catinelle“, or pissing it down as us Brits say.
Before I flew over from the UK, Melissa and I had decided that on one of the days during my visit, we’d take the bus to Rome for the day. It was an easy journey, the cheapest way to get to the Italian capital from Siena, and seemed more than doable in a day. We bought our bus tickets the night before from a small shop in the piazza below Melissa’s apartment, for about €12 each. It was an early start, so after an amazing pasta dinner in the cutest underground bistro, full of excitement and carbs, we hit the sack.
It was still dark when we awoke, so it was hard to tell what kind of day it was going to be weather wise. Foolishly, I left the apartment in Ugg boots and a jacket that wasn’t waterproof…
As soon as we boarded the bus the heavens opened and it poured down constantly for the whole journey. And then it poured some more when we stepped of the bus in Rome. So my memories of the Italian capital are mostly of wrestling in the wind with the extortionately priced plastic ponchos we purchased from a street vendor, worries of developing trench foot after my boots soaked up every drop of water like a sponge, and running from MacDonald’s toilet to MacDonald’s toilet to stick our heads under the hand dryers in an attempt to stop ourselves getting a cold from dripping wet hair.
I look back and laugh now, but at the time it wasn’t much fun. The rain didn’t ease off until we were back in Siena much, much later that night.
We did manage to visit the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Plus, we went through to the Vatican City, a city-state within Rome. But I feel like I didn’t experience Rome properly, because of the dampness and how it deflated my spirit. Hopefully at some point, budget permitting, I’ll get to take another trip to the Italian capital. Preferably in the spring or early autumn, when it’s not too hot but not absolutely pouring down.
What to see in Siena.
As I was staying at Melissa’s rented apartment in central Siena, this was the city I got to explore and experience the most. And what a beautiful city it is – rustic, medieval, quaint and antiquated are also adjectives I’d use to describe it.
Apart from the tiny bistros and corner cafes that served the best coffee and tastiest bread I had in Italy, the cathedral was a big favourite of mine.
Consecrated on the former site of a Roman temple in 1179 and constructed over the 13th and 14th centuries, Siena’s majestic Duomo is a showcase of some of the most talented medieval and Renaissance architects and artists: Giovanni Pisano designed the intricate white, green and red marble facade; Nicola Pisano carved the elaborate pulpit; Pinturicchio painted the frescoes in the extraordinary Piccolomini Library; and Michelangelo, Donatello and Gian Lorenzo Bernini all produced sculptures.
But it’s not just what’s on the inside that counts: I was most impressed with the exterior, having never seen a building like it before. The iconic black and white Duomo tower stands tall like a stack of Liquorice Allsorts overlooking its kingdom. And it’s visible from pretty much everywhere in the city, including the rooftop terrace of Melissa’s apartment.
Much like the unpredictable British weather, the wind and rain eased off on my last day in the country. Typical. It even got hot enough for a wander around the park without a coat.
The leaves on the trees in the park had turned a gorgeous golden orange and already begun shedding. Because of the persistent rain though they were a little mulchy underfoot – another dry day and night and they would have been at optimum autumnal crunchiness. One of the things I love so much about this time of year.
Despite the rain and the rocky start to the trip, it was a great to explore a small part of Italy with Melissa. She was was the perfect travel buddy – I’m so grateful for her hospitality, allowing me to stay with her in Siena and for being a tour guide and a tourist with me.
Oh, and let’s not forget her homemade bruschetta, served on warm crusty Italian bread. Because if it wasn’t for this little taste of Italy, I wouldn’t be sat here chuckling too myself about all these memories…
Baking Italian bread, and breaking it.
So why all the reminiscing? Why trawl through hundreds of photos of a trip I took seven years ago? What’s brought all these memories back?
Well, a fortnight ago I was invited down to the Jamie Oliver Cookery School in West London, to take a masterclass in baking Italian bread. Led by chef Gabi and her helpful sous chef, we were shown how to mix the ingredients together carefully (and precisely) to make the perfect dough. Then Gabi demonstrated the art of kneading and shared tips on how to ensure we got the texture right.
Once she’d finished the demo and put her rolls in the oven, we all had a go at making our own, in creative artisan shapes and styles. I went for a couple of plaited rolls and a cute little heart, which certainly won some love on Instagram (especially when the Jamie Oliver Cookery School shared it).
Next up was the focaccia, which we prepped in the masterclass under Gabi’s supervision, and took home to bake. The smells in that room that damp Sunday in London were unreal, but it was the taste that had me remembering my trip to Italy. I was so surprised at how easy it was to make the bread, too – if you fancy making your own crusty white rolls or home-made focaccia, check out these recipes.
The phrase “breaking bread” couldn’t be more apt for the afternoon spent in the cookery school. Once our bread was baked, we all sat down together to tear into it, dipping the warm, crusty chunks into a delicious homemade soup and a little pot of cheese fondue.
We chatted animatedly, umm-ing and ahh-ing over the flavours, and washing it all down with fancy Italian wine. I had the chance to catch up with fellow travel blogger Rebecca from Runaway Kiwi, and I finally met Nayna from Simply Sensational Food, after being a fan of her site for so long.
There was a real buzz about the table, the atmosphere was very buoyant, very lively. Very akin to the bistros and restaurants I dined in in Italy, actually. So, momentarily, as I sat there munching my bread and sipping the wine, I was transported back to October 2010, to Siena, Pisa and Rome.
Well maybe not Rome, as I wasn’t wrestling with a plastic poncho this time…