Tuesday, 20 June 2017

PORTUGAL | 10 things to expect from Intrepid's food-focussed tour through Porto, Lisbon, and the Alentejo region

our lovely Intrepid Travel group in Lisbon

Organised group travel: my first time


I’ve never been on an organised group trip abroad before. Well ok, I have. But they’ve always been designed for “media” – journalists, bloggers, writers etc. How they work is a few people will be sent somewhere, usually with a cool and curated jam-packed agenda, often hosted by a tourism board, in order to showcase the area and all it has to offer. 

Flights, meals, activities, experiences, accommodation, and ground transport are all sorted in advance by the organisers, there’s a comprehensive itinerary (although often a bit too ambitious, with little free/down time), and there isn’t really anything to think about other than making sure you don’t forget your passport.

Porto tiles, Portugal
They’re more often than not awesome (if not excruciatingly exhausting). But when I write up the experience, I’m always left thinking that it would be a real challenge for someone to replicate themselves.

When I take my personal, non-work related trips, I spend inordinate amounts of time researching and planning, especially when it comes to where and what I'll be eating (more on my recent thoughts on eating experiences whilst travelling in TRAVEL | Is VizEat the future of authentic local dining experiences in people's homes?)
. I want the best food for the best price, I want to make sure I'm not 'settling' when there might be a superstar tin shack around the corner, and I want to indulge in as much superlative eating as my finite time and budget can possibly allow. This all requires significant forward planning.

When I went travelling for eight months with my partner back in 2015, I 'planned' for two whole years. I ended up with a gargantuan spreadsheet that would have crashed most computers, with a row for each day of the circa eight months we would be away. What started off as a simple budgeting tool grew into a colour-coded, multi-layered, multi-columned, pivot tabled behemoth. It became the life of two people for most of a year in cell form. So yeah, I can get carried away with pre-holiday research. 


daily scenes in Porto, Portugal
My ideal travel formula is as close to the following as possible: 

MAX. COOL EXPERIENCES + 
BEST NON-TOURISTY AND AUTHENTIC PLACES TO EAT + 
SOLID ACCOMMODATION + 
PLENTY OF PHOTO OPPS + 
SUPPORTING AND INTERACTING WITH THE LOCALS 

= MIN. EXPENSE AND MIN. STRESS

A lot like Einstein’s theory of relativity, (when it’s achieved) it’s a thing of beauty.

It turns out that Intrepid Travel - 'small groups, big adventures and responsible travel' - have my magic formula almost down to a T. They do all the researching, planning, organising and booking on your behalf. Unique experiences, non-touristy places to eat and ways to see things, solid accommodation, for a very reasonable fee. Add to that the feel good factor of their sustainability initiatives, and it’s a winning combination. 

They’re so closely aligned to how I travel anyway, that I will seriously be considering them for my personal trips going forward.

I was invited to an abridged version of their Real Food Adventure - Galicia & Portugal tour. We experienced five out of what would usually be the full eight day trip, skipping the stops in Spain.

For first-time group participants like me, here are 10 things you can expect from Intrepid's food-focussed tour through Porto, Lisbon, and the Alentejo region. 

But before that, here's a short video I stitched together from the trip:


1) Fab group dynamic and small numbers

One of the things Intrepid really pride themselves on are their small group numbers. That number does vary depending on where and how they're travelling, but we're talking an average group size of ten people. Which means you can legitimately all eat together in a restaurant, all fit into a bar - actually do the real life, everyday things - without standing out like a sore thumb. 


There's nothing more touristy then seeing a tour group of 30+ parading through the small cobbled streets of an ancient town, with the leader brandishing an umbrella above their head. Shudders. Intrepid's small groups mean you stay under the radar, and travel, eat and sleep the local way. But there's still enough people in them to create a good social vibe. 

I heard stories of people making friends for life, and there even being a few marriages, thanks to Intrepid. And where there are marriages, babies often follow. To think, you as a travel company, have been the catalyst in helping create new life. That's a pretty big deal. 

And I actually have a friend who has been on a few Intrepid tours, who has stayed close friends with those in his group. He never shuts up about how great they are. I can now totally see why.

good times with our little Intrepid Travel group


2) Urban Adventures local guides and knowledge


Everyone knows that the best people to help you get under the skin of a new destination are those who call that place home. It's the natives that will show you the cool hidden spots, the hang-outs where only the locals go, the hip new joint that's just opened.

I was really impressed that whilst we had Marco from Intrepid with us throughout our whole trip, every time we reached a new destination, we met with a new local guide who lived there. Many of those were from Urban Adventuresa division of Intrepid Travel that focuses on day long city tours (or shorter), that take travellers to the most interesting places to meet locals, and really find out what makes a place tick.

One of my favourite local tours from the trip was when Joana from Urban Adventures met us in Lisbon. She walked and talked us through the Mouraria District with its fabulous street art, the Alfama District where Fado music was born, and took us to a cool hole-in-the-wall bar to sip on some Ginjinha, a Portuguese liqueur made from sour cherries, which went straight to my head.

I also really like the fact that the restaurants the meals are eaten in vary depending on the guide, as each will have their own favourites. Nothing is set in stone, and because the group is small, things can be flexible.

our fab local Urban Adventure guides throughout the trip


3) Solid accommodation


One thing I'd mentally prepared myself for was accommodation that left a lot to be desired. For some reason, I'd associated group travel with having to deal with a few compromises. Sure, you'll get all these cool and unique experiences, with a small group of people you really get on with, and you're making memories that will last a lifetime. But, you might have to share a room, or there won't be showering facilities, or your bed is in a pig shed.

Shows what I know. The accommodation was in fact a solid highlight, in all three places we stayed. Intrepid have a budget for beds, and their people on the ground source the best value-for-money rooms. What they guarantee are 'simple, clean and well located hotels', but what I experienced was much more.

Particularly in Lisboa Tejo Hotel, which seemed to have just finished refurbishing all its rooms to a really high standard and design. And even more so, the Herdade da Amendoeira farm stay in the Alentejo region. A positively bucolic setting in rural Portugal, with converted cattle sheds transformed into exquisitely furnished rooms in the style of traditional old Alentejo houses, fully equipped with air conditioning and other mod cons. A truly glorious corner of the world.

Herdade da Amendoeira farm stay in the Alentejo region, Portugal


4) Beautiful sights


As someone who takes a lot of pictures, and likes to share a lot of those on Instagram, one of my high priorities when I travel is seeing and capturing beauty, in all its forms. I'm happy to report, there was no shortage of that on this trip.

From the expansive vistas across Portugal's fertile and wine-producing Douro Valley, to the spectacular tiled facades of Porto's buildings, to the stunning view out the window from our table in Raiz Restaurant in Porto, I barely pulled the camera away from my face.

lots of great sights and photo opportunities, Portugal


5) A lot of food and wine


There was no missing the fact that this was a food (and wine!) focused tour. Of course, any of Intrepid's tours will be punctuated with the day's meals. But in between those meals, we did even more eating and drinking. I was in my element.

On our first day we went on an Urban Adventures walking food tour, stopping to graze on local delicacies along the way, from codfish cakes paired with a caramel and aniseed liquor called Eduardino, to local cured meats and cheeses, to a whole Port tasting.

Our time in the Douro Valley was understandably focused around wine - my kind of day. With two winery visits and several tastings under our belt, we also stopped off at a small and very old olive oil producing plant, to see how it was done in the old days. The lunch from that day, in a traditional restaurant up on a hill, was one of my favourite meals from the trip. Roast turkey (I was gnawing on the bones long after the staff had cleared our plates), local fish, fresh salad, roast potatoes - simple food cooked really well.

And then there was the evening meal at the farm stay (I really did like that farm stay), which was another stellar feed. Vegetable soup, slow roast pig cheeks, roast potatoes, fried eggs from the roaming chickens on the farm, superbly seasoned rice, and more salad. Home cooked food wins for me every time, and it was great to experience some of that on this trip.

some great eating with Intrepid Travel in Portugal


6) Plenty of free time


The thing that has put me - and I reckon a lot of other people - off from considering a group trip before, is the thought of spending all of my time around other people. I am someone that loves (and needs) my own space, and company. And the threat of having to share both for a whole week is frankly, terrifying.

Have no fear. It turns out Intrepid is fully aware and appreciative of this common desire, and so strike a perfect balance between included activities and 'me time'. Not everything is scheduled; not all meals are planned. If you stumble across a cool cafe that you want to chill out in on your own before you head to the next destination, you'll have plenty of time to do that. 

And because all the nitty gritty stuff involving crossing borders, negotiating prices, and organising logistics is taken care of, you can maximise your time off and focus all your energy on having the experience of a lifetime. Amen to that.

down time in Lisbon


7) Sustainable and responsible travel


Here's something that's pretty cool: the majority of Intrepid trips are Carbon Offset. That's over 800 trips! And they're also low impact by design, meaning they try to use public transport where possible (the train from Porto to Lisbon was great fun), stay in locally owned and simpler styles of accommodation (again, that farm stay đź’™), and eat at locally owned eateries.

Then there's the whole local guides thing. It translates to economic empowerment, meaning people can earn a living and support their families through tourism, without having to commute for hours, or leave their home altogether. Intrepid end up putting your money into local hands and economies.

There are a few other cool responsible tourism initiatives they can shout about, and you can find more in this report:

  • A Kilimanjaro trek for women’s land rights across Africa
  • Raising $700,000 for Nepal after the earthquake of 2015
  • Our decision to remove orphanages from our itineraries
  • Our drive to employ female tour leaders in India
  • Our progress towards becoming a B-Corp – a certification for businesses to want to benefit society as well their shareholders


It's comforting to know you're giving your hard earned money to a company that takes responsible and sustainable tourism very seriously.

Pinhao train station, Portugal




8) Getting out of the city

the Douro Valley, Portugal

I loved the fact we ventured out of the cities, something I find quite a challenge to achieve on my personal trips. 


My partner doesn't drive, and I have no experience driving on the right hand side (I really need to address that). When it comes to travel, if you don't hire a car, or don't join some sort of tour, it's quite difficult to get out of the city and into the countryside. So I was really pleased to see Intrepid had a healthy mix of urban and rural on this tour.

From Porto we drove for about an hour and arrived at the simply spectacular Douro Valley, where we visited wineries and drank all the wine (you couldn't do that if you hired a car). Also, the roads down the sides of the valley were barely wide enough for a Mini, and excruciatingly steep. I categorically would not have been comfortable driving there anyway. Hence why it's best to have a local behind the wheel, who could probably navigate those tiny roads with their eyes close (our driver's eyes were firmly open). 


And then from Lisbon, we headed to the Alentejo region and stayed on a working farm (oh yes, that farm stay).

9) Unique, real life experiences


I've wanted to try my hand at making cheese since about Christmas 2005, when I was determined someone would get me a Lakeland cheese making kit for Christmas. But it never came to be. 

No worries. Because I got to have a go at making fresh goat's cheese on a farm in the Portuguese countryside, from that morning's milk, whilst the goats bleated away in the field next door. I'm not sure it gets more authentic than that. Much cooler than any Lakeland kit.

This is a great example of some of the unique experiences Intrepid weave into their tours, that you won't find through a search engine. The little noodle bars, the backstreet bodegas, or the live Fado performance Joana took us to in a Lisbon restaurant, that had me covered in goosebumps through all three courses of my dinner.

getting hands on with cheese making, Herdade da Amendoeira farm stay


10) Really good value


Firstly, take a look at the Intrepid website and their prices. You'll notice, they're not expensive. Then when you realise all the stuff that's included, it becomes increasingly apparent how these guys offer unbeatable value.

They offer three styles of travel, all of which come with more inclusions than you might expect on a typical group adventure. Whilst another tour might drop their clan off at the Taj Mahal and leave them to it, the local leaders Intrepid work with will give you great value the whole way. 

Note: This is a sponsored post in partnership with Intrepid Travel. I'm honoured they invited me along to experience this trip - I had an absolute blast. I'd love to try out more Intrepid trips! It's been great fun and a pleasure to collaborate on. All views remain my own, as always.

Monday, 19 June 2017

DINING | Japanese all the way: the Celebrity Cruises 'Taste of Travel' experience at Taste of London

all of the truffled tuna tataki at Celebrity Cruises 'Taste of Japan'
Have I ever mentioned Japanese food is in my top three cuisines on the planet? It in fact might well be my number one. A big claim, I know. But the love is real (on that note, you might want to check out my recommendation of 10 Things to Eat in Tokyo). I'm actually a bit obsessed with the country as a whole, and I'm truly desperate to return. I have everything crossed, and kneel before the Travel Gods on a daily basis.

When the nice folk over at Celebrity Cruises asked if I'd like to pop along to their stand at Taste of London, with the promise of taking me on a '30 minute gastronomic journey around the world' (one of the options being with a fourth generation sushi chef), my ears pricked.

This was actually Celebrity Cruises' fifth year bringing global flavours to the visitors of Taste of London, through their Taste of Travel experience. How their tastings work is you're welcomed into a cool space, that looks a bit like the inside of one of their ships. You're handed a Celebrity Cruises "passport", and are told your seat number. And then for 30 minutes, the chef in question for the tasting you've chosen, plus a couple of hosts, will wine and dine you through a destination-inspired, two course, food and wine pairing.

There was also a 'Taste of Galapagos' and a 'Taste of Tuscany' on offer, but it always had to be a 'Taste of Japan' for me.

chefs plating up the tastings, and hosts chatting to the crowd
The intention of these tastings is to give visitors an insight into the sort of culinary experiences you can expect to find at the destinations themselves, and on board their ships. Celebrity Cruises sail to over 300 destinations, and one of those is in fact Japan (wonder if they hear my pleas..). I had a front centre seat to watch Celebrity Cruises Japanese Master Sushi Chef, Yoshikazu Okada, at work.

As well as sampling dishes from their award-winning culinary team, Celebrity Cruises have also partnered with The Wine Show. The show's resident experts, Amelia Singer and Joe Fattorini, were the hosts of the experience, if you like, guiding all the guests through the dishes and the ideal pairing. And it's worth noting, the cruise company's extensive cellar boasts the largest and rarest wine collection at sea. Who doesn't enjoy a fine tipple with some salty sea air.

The 'Taste of Japan' first course was a superb truffle Albacore (longfin tuna) tataki: thin slices of lightly seared tuna, cucumber, micro coriander, a light ponzu dressing, and a little truffle oil. Paired with a glass of Viognier “La Violette”, Jean-Luc Colombo, Languedoc. Then there was a supremely tasty morsel in the form of a lobster and shrimp wonton, alongside some fabulous sake, Junmai Daiginjo Dassai. And to round it off, everyone got a little white chocolate truffle with a yuzu centre - stellar.

the 'Taste of Japan' tastings at the Celebrity Cruises stand, Taste of London


It was a fun way to spend half an hour on a sunny day in London, surrounded by what were clearly some life long fans of Celebrity Cruises, many of who had been sailing with them before. Has this experience whet my appetite enough to want to live the real deal on board? Most definitely. So Celebrity, when do we set sail?

Note: This is a sponsored post in partnership with Celebrity Cruises. I'm very pleased they invited me along, it was good fun, and very tasty. Now I just need to get on one of their voyages.. (hint dropped, unashamedly). All views remain my own, as always.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

TRAVEL | Is VizEat the future of authentic local dining experiences in people's homes?

Camille's Delicious Sunday Brunch, one of the London experiences on VizEat
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It will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog, and followers of my social accounts, that my biggest motivation to travel is getting a good feed. I select my next destination based mostly on what exotic delicacies I can scoff once I get there. Closely followed by natural beauty and wildlife, enthralling cities, and how friendly the natives are. 

When I am eating on my travels, my main agenda is to experience food as authentic and local as I can find. Restaurants with tourists are generally avoided, whereas bustling tin shacks with not an English word spoken often equate to fantastic feasting. Especially if they have strip lighting. I do a lot of research beforehand, and will often try to get in touch with someone who lives there and is willing to show me round one evening, in exchange for a few beers and good chat. This worked supremely well in Mumbai, where I met up with a few people from Food Bloggers Association India. We ate well together.

The ultimate travel dining experience for me, is being invited into someone's home to eat. I've alas, never quite managed this. I was probably closest quite recently in Catania in Sicily. The host of the apartment we were staying in told us of an artist friend she had, who was currently running an exhibition in Catania, and who we should get in touch with if we fancied visiting it. The artist ended up inviting us to join her for Sunday lunch in her home, cooked by her mother (real Italian mama's pasta), which we were all damn excited about. But schedules didn't quite work out, and it alas never came to be.

the different stages of making host Camille's suggested mega brunch tower stack
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Well, I've now recently discovered VizEat, thanks to them finding me online and getting in touch. These guys connect travellers looking to share a meal or food experience with locals. Anything from cooking classes and market tours, to supper clubs and wine tastings, in over 250 cities, in a whopping 110 countries. These locals make up around 20,000 hosts around the world, who are a combination of home cooks and trained chefs, all from different backgrounds. But what everyone has in common is the love for cooking, eating, and meeting new people. My kind of crew.

I'm not entirely sure how I hadn't heard of VizEat before; I think they're well known across the continent, but less so in the UK. But now I have, I think it's such a great idea. They're all about allowing people visiting a new part of the world to make meaningful connections with those who live there. Whilst so many transactions and encounters take place online these days, maintaining the human element of travelling is mighty attractive. And I think many would agree that some of the strongest connections made between people are forged over the breaking of bread. These guys use technology to connect travellers with locals, to facilitate the simple desire of enjoying a meal with others.

brunch scenes with Sally and host Camille
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VizEat got in touch, told me about what they do, and asked if I'd like to try out an experience in my home town of London. And so, a couple of Sundays ago, myself and my good friend Sally (aka The Cafe Cat), popped over to Camille's house in West London to enjoy her 'Delicious Sunday Brunch'. Buttermilk pancakes, creamed spinach, smashed avo, mushrooms, crispy maple bacon, baked beans, wonderful Jing tea, coffee, sausages, fried eggs, homemade jams, black pudding, roasted cherry tomatoes, freshly made juices, cheese, and fruit salad - phew! It was a serious feast, and a pleasure to meet and chat with Camille, and attempt to make friends with her cat (who was less keen).

They also allowed me to run an Instagram competition for one of my readers to win a VizEat experience, in the city of their choice, for two people worth up to 150 Euros or equivalent. Which was very generous of them. Congrats again to the winner, Roxii!

It turns out that VizEat is now the world’s most popular meal sharing platform, and has been called the future of dining by travel and tech commentators (Apple CEO Tim Cook recently joining an event on his latest trip to Paris). Now that I know it exists, I will, without question, be checking out what's on offer next time I'm in a new city. Which is in fact next week.. Best get on it.

the finished mega brunch tower stack - buttermilk pancakes topped with truffle pesto, avocado, creamed spinach, mushrooms, cheese, bacon; topped with a fried egg; furnished with sausage, black pudding, roasted tomatoes and baked beans 

Note: This is a sponsored post in partnership with VizEat. I'm thrilled they found me and that I now know about them. It's been great fun and a pleasure to collaborate on. All views remain my own, as always.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

RECIPE | Pasta with chestnuts, mushrooms and a parsley pesto

pasta with chestnuts, mushrooms and a parsley pesto, paired with Veuve Clicquot's Extra Brut Extra Old

Here's a pasta recipe I think you might all want to try. Assuming you like mushrooms, that is. Fun fact: I really used to dislike mushrooms as a child; now they are one of my all time favourite ingredients. I always gravitate towards a mushroom dish when choosing from a menu, or mushrooms in my kitchen. Hooray for acquired tastes!


cooking up the feast - note that amazing
hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano
The nice folk over at champagne maison Veuve Clicquot challenged me to pair a dish with their latest bottle of bubbles, their Extra Brut Extra Old. This new cuvĂ©e is drawn from the maison’s famous collection of reserve wines, which is in fact one of the largest in Champagne. 

Whereas Veuve Clicquot's famous Yellow Label bottles are made up of 35-40% of reserve wines, 100% of Extra Brut Extra Old is made from reserve wines, from six different vintages –  1988, 1996, 2006, 2008 and 2010. All the wines have been aged for a minimum of three years in stainless-steel vats, then matured for at least a further three years in bottle in Veuve Clicquot’s cellars. 

The tasting notes go well with mushrooms and nuts, so I honed in on those two ingredients to make a very tasty pasta dish: linguine with chestnuts, mushrooms and a parsley pesto. It's in fact a much loved and used (by me) recipe from Delicious Magazine, and as I'd hoped, pairs fantastically well with the Extra Brut Extra Old bubbles.

You can find the recipe below if anyone fancies giving it a go; it's supremely easy, and a nice alternative to standard pesto. I bought those stellar mushrooms from Borough Market, but feel free to use chestnut mushrooms if they're easier to find. Please note from my pictures: the fabulously sweaty hunk of 36 month old Parmigiano Reggiano I brought back from Bologna and used with wild abandon in the pesto. Oh yes.

Pasta with chestnuts, mushrooms and a parsley pesto

Serves 4

stunning 'shrooms
from Borough Market
Ingredients
35g pack peeled and cooked chestnuts (I use Merchant Gourmet)
2 garlic cloves
4 tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tsp lemon juice
125ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for frying
20g Parmesan, finely grated, plus extra for serving
Large knob of butter
250g mushrooms, sliced
350g pasta (I used linguine)

In a food processor, blitz the chestnuts, garlic, parsley, lemon juice and some seasoning to a course paste. Slowly add the oil as it continues blitzing, then stir through the cheese.

Heat a splash of oil and a knob of butter in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and fry for around five minutes until golden.

In the meantime, cook the pasta in a pan of boiling water until al dente. Drain and add to the pan the mushrooms are in, including a splash of the cooking water. Add the pesto to the pan too, and toss everything together whilst still on a low heat. Serve, and top with more Parmesan.

Tip: if you're enjoying this with Veuve Clicquot's Extra Brut Extra Old, I'd recommend keeping your champagne glasses in the freezer to frost up a little first, before pouring the bubbles. What a fab dinner - enjoy!

definitely had at least one cheeky glass while cooking this

Note: This is a sponsored post in partnership with Veuve Clicquot. It's been great fun and a pleasure to collaborate on - not to mention all the lovely bottles of bubbly they sent over. All views remain my own, as always.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

ITALY | 10 places to eat and things to do in Catania, Sicily (in partnership with HomeAway)

me and my awesome crazy pals in Catania, Sicily

I've wanted to visit Sicily for as long as I can remember. Partly because of the story my mum loves to recount, from when she spent her early twenties living there (in Catania, specifically), working as an au pair for a family that was, unbeknownst to her at the time, very much central to the Sicilian mafia. She wasn't made aware until one morning, after my mum had fed the children breakfast, the family matriarch ominously advised quietly in her ear to 'get out', while she still could. 


And that time when my mum had an actual real life gun fired at her through the back window of a car she was in, due to mistaken identity. Again, mafia related. It missed her, thankfully. But I'm sure it was all mega lolz at the time. 


Couple all of the above with the fact I also love The Godfather, and you have yourself a bonafide Sicily fan.


South Italian stereotypes and lores from the 70s aside, Sicily probably isn't quite like any of that anymore. But what it has undoubtedly retained is its majestic beauty, and the friendliness of its people. Not to mention, there's something deliciously dangerous about living in the shadow of a tremendous volcano (the most active in Europe), that could blow its top and rain down all iterations of hell at any given moment. I even went hiking across an active volcanic range in Iceland once, whilst it was on red alert. That was fun.

scenes from Catania in Sicily
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So when the fine folk from HomeAway got in touch one day, with one of those emails that makes you air punch so hard you end up pulling something, I was thrilled. It went along the lines of, "Hi Leyla, we really like your stuff. Can we send you somewhere in Europe, with a few of your friends, to experience one of our properties? We'd like you to explore the area, and also really make use of the kitchen. Where would you like to go?'

To which I said, yes you absolutely may. And Sicily it must be.

The particularly good thing about the listings on HomeAway, compared to other holiday rental platforms or old school hotels, is you only ever get the whole property – kitchen, lounge, dining room, the lot. And you only share it with the people you choose to. 

My chosen squad for this trip? None other than some of my London Cheap Eats team members, the awesome Steph Chan, Ed Tan and Bisi Bajomo. Because whilst I may not be able to pay the team for all the incredible work they do on London Cheap Eats, I can sure as hell get at least some of them to join me in Italy.

Palazzo Asmundo


Allow me to first dedicate some space to the property in Catania that HomeAway booked for us. It's called Palazzo Asmundo, and in case you're wondering, yes, palazzo in Italian does mean palace. And palace is the exact correct word for this place.
 

downstairs at our HomeAway property in Catania, Palazzo Asmundo
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A high-end five bedroom, five bathroom, luxury penthouse palace, right in the heart of Catania, set over two floors, with a roof garden and terrace, two huge kitchens, full of art, and an outstanding view of the mighty Mount Etna. There were only four of us, which meant we could keep one bedroom untouched for ample Instagram photography purposes. Very important.

If you check out the Part 1 video below, you'll see a speeded up run through of the whole property, which will give you a real feel the place.


upstairs at our HomeAway property in Catania, Palazzo Asmundo
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Not to mention the place comes with a maid who services it for two hours each day, much like a hotel. So you come home to plush beds, pristine bathrooms, and more importantly, no washing up. Here's the listing on HomeAway.

The property can sleep up to five couples and is around £500 a night. If you can fill it, that works out as a mere £50 a night per person, for unrivalled grandeur. That is great value.


What to do and where to eat in Catania, Sicily


Catania isn't a place with a huge amount of sightseeing to be done. But, it is exceedingly pretty, and full of great food. Which is perfect, if like me, your trips away are centred around where you'll be having your meals, punctuated with gleefully aimless wandering and picture taking in between. Rather than, say, queuing up for hours to see big hitters, surrounded by endless hoards of tourists *shudders*.

With that in mind, I've pulled together a loose guide on what you could get up to, and where you should eat it, if you were to find yourself in this gem of city for a couple of days.


But before that, here's the first of two videos I made from our long weekend there. It ends in some questionable dance moves, meaning it's worth watching. I'd also love to know what you think of it in the comments at the end of this blog post, or under the video itself on YouTube. Part 2 will follow soon!




1) VISIT | Catania Fish Market


This is the one thing you really must visit in Catania before you leave, especially if you're into your food and/or photography. Even British chef and fish fiend Rick Stein described Catania Fish Market as one of the best fish markets in Europe.


Expect cheery bunting, majestic architecture, and incredible produce, both from land and from sea. The fish come from Mazara del Vallo, Italy's largest fishing port, in southwest Sicily, as well as smaller ports famed for specific things, like anchovies from Sciacca, and swordfish from Favignana. It's a spectacle, everyone is exceedingly friendly, and it's where we bought all the ingredients for the home cooked Sicilian lunch we made that Sunday (more on that below).

The market as a whole is referred to as the Fish Market, but it does also sell plenty of fruit and veg. It's open during the morning every day of the week, lasts a little longer on Saturdays, and is closed on Sundays. 

Located off Piazza Duomo near the cathedral and fountain ("dell'Amenano"), between Via Garibaldi and Via Pacini, extending along Via Gemelli ZappalĂ .

Catania Fish Market


2) DO | Make use of local produce, and cook!


One thing we certainly did quite a bit of in Catania, was unashamedly bask in the grandeur of our HomeAway property. Understandable. 


On the terrace we enjoyed all our breakfasts, a couple of great lunches, and marvelled at the fact we could spot red filaments of lava flows against a silhouetted Etna once the sun went down.

During my eight month travel stint back in 2015, our accommodation was almost exclusively rental properties, and absolutely always with access to a kitchen. Being at the mercy of noisy neighbours and hotel breakfast buffet timings, has never been something that appeals to me. 

The freedom the HomeAway properties give to enjoy what you want at your own pace, with the people you want, in a space you don't need to share, is pretty much my exact checklist when it comes to choosing where to stay while travelling.

the fantastic breakfasts we enjoyed on our terrace

And then there's cooking. Where I can, I always like to get into the spirit of local life by raiding a glorious market for fabulous produce, and rustling up a dish traditional to the area I'm staying.


For Sunday lunch, we made two Sicilian staples: pasta con le sarde (sardine pasta) and caponata, a type of aubergine stew. We furnished the meal with fennel and blood orange salad, steamed artichokes, huge roasted onions, cured meats, and bread. All the ingredients were bought from the market on Saturday, and we cooked up a storm on Sunday. It was a glorious feast; props to Ed, Bisi and Steph who did all the hard work while I was busy taking pictures and nibbling on olives. 

And endless thanks to lovely Guenter, the property owner, who stocked the place with so much booze for us, that we had no need to buy any alcohol.

the epic Sunday lunch my friends cooked in our HomeAway property, Catania
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3) EAT | Snack at Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab


You'll find this little hole in the wall in the midst of the fish market, on the site of an old butcher shop, with white tiles on the walls and meat hooks still on view to the public.  

These guys fry the best of Sicily's seafood on the spot, wrapped in traditional straw paper cones, enjoyed amongst the heady mix of an Arab and Mediterranean market atmosphere. Full of flavour, really moreish, and very fresh - it's easy to get carried away and keep ordering more cones.

It also overlooks the spot where the smaller boats display their catches, with lots of tables loaded with all things fresh and silvery from the sea.

sciroccolab.com/en/

Piazza Alonzo Di Benedetto n.7, 95121 Catania

the really very good fried fish from Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab in the fish market, Catania

4) EAT | An al fresco lunch at Razmataz


This is the place our HomeAway host recommended, when I asked where locals eat for lunch. Wines by the glass, draught and bottled beer and an ample cocktail list are offered at this dreamy wine bar, with tables invitingly spread out across the tree-shaded flagstones of a quaint backstreet square. It doubles as a café in the morning, but really gets packed with locals from aperitivo time onward.

Check the blackboard for a daily-changing selection of light meals; it was great to see local Sicilian dishes other than pasta. We enjoyed black rice with Jerusalem artichokes, peas and leeks; orange and fennel salad; roast chicken and potatoes; a whole veal rib; seriously great veal meatballs with lemon leaves; and a bottle of red from a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Etna. 

Do not miss eating here if you find yourself in Catania. And check out the video above for some behind the scenes from our meal at Razmataz.

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Via Montesano n.17, 95131 Catania
 

a fabulous lunch had at Razmataz Wine Bar, Catania
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5) EAT | Gelato at Savia


Obviously when anywhere in Italy, one must seek out gelato. Which is what I always do, with much gusto. But the hazlenut gelato from Savia in Catania, is hands down the best gelato I've ever had. 


I even popped over to Bologna and Florence on a separate trip, straight after Sicily, and shovelled in as much gelato as I could find; nothing came close. And nothing has before.

This was another recommendation from our HomeAway host, but it also came up in our pre-visit research. She did, however, specifically single out the hazelnut gelato as the best in Catania. I reckon it could well be the best on the island. Outstanding texture, intense hazelnut flavour, and even the thin wafer waffle cone was a total delight.

Savia is in fact a pasticceria - a pastry shop - that happens to sell gelato. In a brioche bun too, if you're feeling fancy. Which means this is also the place to buy pastries, cakes, Italian biscuits, and also arancini, which was very tasty. Check out more of our verdict on Savia in the video further up.

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Pasticceria Savia, Via Etnea n. 302/304, 95100 Catania

the best gelato I've ever had (specifically the hazelnut), from Savia in Catania
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6) EAT | All the pasta at Al Tortellino


This is a very casual, friendly, brightly-lit spot, regarded by locals as the home of homemade pasta in Catania.

Don't come here for a romantic dinner by candlelight, but do some for a range of great value pasta dishes. Expect tasty Sicilian classics like pasta alla norma (pasta with aubergine), pasta with pistacho sausage and a cream sauce, gnocchi with buffaloo mozzarella, and the rest.

They also serve pizza, which we started with, and totally didn't need. Along with four plates of pasta, and a large bottle of beer, the bill didn't come to much more than 20 Euros for four of us.

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Via Simili Giuseppe n.20, 95129 Catania

lots of local pasta dishes at Al Tortellino, Catania
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7) VISIT | The glorious piazzas


Head to the Piazza del Duomo at the heart of the city, for a splendid circuit of Sicilian Baroque masterpieces. The square is a major meeting point for both people and the city's principle streets, which converge at the piazza. Which makes it difficult to get too lost. It's also worth strolling through in the evening, when the restaurants are busy and the cathedral is lit.


The modest ruins of a Roman theatre, below street level in Piazza Stesicoro, discovered in the early twentieth century, are certainly worth a look. You can do so from street level, admiring it from over the fence, or pay to descend and have a wander through the ruins themselves.

Piazza Stesicoro, 95100 Catania

Piazza del Duomo, central Catania

 Piazza Stesicoro (with the ruins) and Piazza del Duomo, Catania
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8) DO | Get off the beaten track


If you explore heading south from the city centre, you'll come across neighbourhoods that I took to be where the majority of Catanians actually live (as opposed to the city centre). It has a rugged beauty; what you might expect southern Italy to look like in your mind's eye.


There are a lot of opportunities for great photos here, and we spent a good half hour getting a group shot of us jumping around like loons, thanks to a spider tripod Ed brought along (this blog post's main picture was the winning shot, mostly because of Bisi's mesmerising levitation skills).

On our wanderings south, we also came across the only real street food we found in Catania. In both cases, men were barbecuing meat out on the pavement. Punters were buying it straight up, only sometimes between some bread. We had some sausage, and it was really very good indeed. More on that in the part two video coming soon.

getting off the beaten track in Catania


9) DO | Check out the night life


Mercati Generali is probably the island's most influential club, spread out over the warehouses and pressing rooms of a restored 19th-century winery, in the distant southern suburbs of Catania. In summer, the scene moves outside into the palm-shaded garden courtyard. We didn't go there, as it was a little far out from where we were staying. But if you're the raving type, it sounds like it shouldn't be missed, frequently playing host to some of Europe's top DJ's

Instead, we strategically kept our Saturday night within stumbling distance from the palazzo. We started off with a few Negronis at Gammazita, an urban space and open-air library devoted to cultural sharing, which also has a DJ playing some banging tunes in the evening.

And then we ended up at Mingo Lounge Bar, quite literally around the corner from where we were staying. All I really remember from there is that we had the whole place to ourselves, and made damn good use of that dance floor. Plenty of evidence in the video further up.

gammazita.it
Piazza Federico di Svevia n.92, 95121 Catania

Mingo Lounge Bar
Via Auteri, 95100 Catania


10) VISIT | The slopes of Mount Etna 

a spectacular smoking Mount Etna
on the flight into Catania

One thing we didn't get a chance to do, which I would absolutely prioritise on a return visit, is head out of the city, especially closer to the volcano. 

The slopes of Etna are home to wineries, wine festivals, restaurants and hotels. And places like Taormina, about an hour and a half drive up the coast, are meant to be quite spectacular.

What really appeals to me is trekking for a few hours along a nature trail - of which Mount Etna has many - and soaking up those glorious views. This website seemed quite useful.  


Note: This is a sponsored post in partnership with HomeAway. It's been great fun and a pleasure to collaborate on - thanks very much for the opportunity. All views remain my own, as always.

Another note: the imagery used in this post is a combination of mine, Ed's, Bisi's and Steph's. Thanks for the great photoraphy skills guys!

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