Travel

Florence

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I have just spent a lovely four days in Florence, which is a city I have so often heard people gush over that I went with sky-high expectations of being utterly blown away by its beauty and charm. As always, the arrival in any foreign city begins with disorientation, navigation through questionable train/bus/airport neighbourhood surroundings, and regret at having packed so much stuff you probably won’t need as you hulk your suitcase along thronged streets, sweating profusely. However, Florence manages to assuage most of these inconveniences by having a beautiful train station – a lovely piece of modern architecture – and though it’s surrounded by an unpleasant road, within moments you emerge from a small and slightly seedy side street into a spacious, elegant piazza, presided over by the gorgeous church of Santa Maria Novella, which has a small garden to the side with cypress trees, a facade of coloured marble and a general unruffled air of being comfortably and peaceably settled in its own corner of paradise. The piazza is ringed with genteel, shuttered-windowed buildings, and our hotel was one of them. Within moments we had relieved ourselves of our cases and were relaxing in our room, which had a direct view of the church and made us feel very cosmopolitan.

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Once recovered from our journey, we set off to explore, doing a leisurely lap of the city to take in the main sights. We first of all stopped at Santa Maria Novella to take in the gorgeous interior decoration of the church, and enjoy its peaceful, shady cloisters. It’s not on the main tourist trail, but is definitely worth a visit, with some work of significant Renaissance artists to be found inside. Once we had fully drunk in the beauty of the church, we went back out into the ochre coloured streets of the city, which all lead to the Duomo. Its famous dome loomed up before us from unexpected corners until we come out onto its surrounding piazza and had our breath taken away both by its size and its incredible beauty. I had seen pictures of it, of course, but to see it in the flesh is something else entirely. The coloured marble, the red-roofed dome, the slim tower of the campanile and the perfectly preserved carvings are like nothing else I have ever seen, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I can’t even begin to imagine what the travellers of the past must have made of it – no wonder Florence was such a key site on the Grand Tour. Once we’d had a good walk round the Duomo, we went off to see the Signoria, which used to house the government of Florence, and then through the colonnade of the Uffizi Gallery down to the banks of the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with jewellery shops, which provide fantastic window shopping opportunities – I tried on a beautiful necklace that turned out to be 6,000 euros – obviously I made a hasty exit! – as well as gorgeous views out to the surrounding Tuscan hills. On the other side of the Ponte Vecchio we enjoyed looking in the small independent shops selling handmade marbled papers, before walking up to see the grand Medici palazzo, the Palazzo Pitti. By this time we were starving and tired out, so we headed off to a pizza restaurant to rest our weary feet and fill our stomachs before an early night in preparation for the following day’s adventures!

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We had booked in advance to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi  – this is highly recommended to anyone thinking of taking the trip, as the queues can get very long. Climbing up the Campanile early in the morning afforded us a fantastic view over the city, and the Duomo’s Baptistry is a stunning work of art, with amazing Byzantine style decoration. The Duomo itself was nothing much to look at inside, apparently – I wouldn’t know as I was prevented from entering by a male security guard who decided my knee-length dress was too short – as a man wearing shorts far shorter than my dress was allowed to walk in ahead of me. This made me so furious that I refused to buy a scarf to cover my perfectly decent legs with and instead waited outside while my friend went in to see the church. My feminist anger still seething, we then went off to see the Signoria, which is a beautiful building with fabulous, ornate state rooms and a very nice art collection, as well as a fantastic tower that can be climbed for impressive views of the Duomo. After lunch and a nice relax in our hotel, we went off to the Uffizi to see the many famous works of Renaissance art found inside, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, before hiking it up the hillside on the other side of the city to enjoy the pretty rose garden and the lovely views of Florence nestled amidst the surrounding Tuscan hills.

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Our final full day in Florence saw us starting early at the Palazzo Pitti, which is beautiful inside, with gorgeous, mainly 18th century interiors, and an impressive artwork collection. However, the main draw of the palazzo (in my opinion) is its extensive gardens, which are a real oasis in the city and offer magnificent views across the countryside. The palazzo was definitely my favourite place we visited, and I could have stayed in its rose garden, looking out at the green expanse of Tuscany all day, but we had much more to see! After lunch and a quick rest stop, we went off to visit the Santa Croce, which is Florence’s Westminster Abbey, housing the tombs of many of Italy’s greatest names, such as Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo, and has gorgeous frescoes by every famous Renaissance painter imaginable. We then went off for a walk and came across the Botanical Gardens, which aren’t extensive but are a nice spot for a stroll, before heading back into town for another rest and then our final dinner.

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I had a wonderful time in Florence – it’s a beautiful city that is small enough to easily walk around, and yet just big enough to keep containing plenty of lovely surprises as you wend your way through its streets. The architecture is certainly not as impressive as that of Rome, but when seen from a height, the red roofs cupped in the verdant palm of the surrounding countryside are a truly magnificent sight. I’m glad I’ve finally seen this little gem, and it’s now made me desperate to see more of Italy!

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Exploring East Sussex

Bateman's

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Two weeks ago, with the promise of lots of lovely long days filled with sunshine, my mum and I finally decided to visit two places we’ve been meaning to get to for a while, just over the county border in East Sussex. First up was Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s beautiful Jacobean manor house nestled down a quiet country lane in the tiny village of Burwash. The village itself is ridiculously pretty, surrounded by open fields and filled with higgledy piggledy rows of 18th and 19th century cottages, Georgian manses and hanging baskets overflowing with late summer flowers. Kipling’s house is built from a lovely mellow stone that blends perfectly with the surrounding landscape, and inside, all is pretty much as he left it. The rooms are warm and cosy, perfectly proportioned and filled with hundreds of fascinating artifacts. Kipling and his family were clearly very happy at Bateman’s, and the whole property, including the lovely rose filled gardens, have a relaxing and calm atmosphere that makes you feel the world and its troubles are miles away. It’s a beautiful spot to come and while away a pleasant summer’s afternoon.

Hastings

Hastings sea front

Having driven through so much pretty countryside on our way to Bateman’s, the next day we decided to go back to East Sussex and see a little more of what the county has to offer. Our first stop was the seaside town of Hastings. Once a popular and elegant resort, particularly favoured by the railway loving Victorians, in the 20th century its fortunes dwindled and it became badly run down. It doesn’t have a particularly good reputation and, when we got off the train and walked into the main town centre, we could clearly see why. The discount shops, crumbling terraces and gangs of mouthy teenagers are only one side of Hastings, however. Just a short walk along the seafront lies the Old Town, with its winding maze of lanes cut into the cliffs that are filled with centuries old buildings of all different shapes and sizes. Here are dozens of wonderful antique shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants that reminded me very much of Brighton’s Laines. At the edge of the Old Town is the Stade, which is a parade of 19th century fishing huts unique to Hastings. Amongst these is the fascinating Fisherman’s Museum, which is well worth a visit, the new Jerwood Gallery, and the famous Maggie’s Fish and Chip shop, which you need to book weeks in advance to guarantee a seat!

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Battle High Street

After a quick lunch of a Fisherman’s Roll, we strolled along the pebbly beach and splashed our feet in the freezing water before heading back to the station. On our way we marvelled at the beautiful Georgian architecture that can be seen snaking up the cliffs to the ruined castle that perches on top of the town. There are crescents and crescents of lovely houses that would cost a fortune if they were anywhere else; it is easy to imagine just how smart Hastings once was. With the arrival of a modern art gallery and the revitalisation of the Old Town, Hastings certainly has more to it than meets the eye, and I hope that it will see a revival in its fortunes in the near future.

Battle(field)

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On our way home, we jumped off the train at nearby Battle to go and have a look at Battle Abbey. As every former British school child will know, Battle was the site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold. There’s no sign of this bloody past in the town today, which is picture postcard pretty. Its main street leads off from the gates of the Abbey, which was built in the 11th century to commemorate the Battle of Hastings. The high street contains a mixture of tacky tourist shops and lovely independent boutiques, and there are also plenty of tea shops to satisfy the tourist’s appetite. We stopped at Mrs Burton’s, right outside the Abbey, and had delicious cakes and tea while watching the world go by. We then wandered back to the station via the lovely church, whose yard has some amazing gravestones, and the open fields that surround the town, which once would have contained thousands of troops on their way to fight for their King. Beautiful, historical and diverse, East Sussex certainly has a lot to offer!

A Capitol Time

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Washington D.C. is the most unlikely capital city I’ve ever visited. It’s certainly got more official buildings than you could shake a stick at, but it’s so calm and laid back, you’d never know there were actually world changing events going on behind those white marble facades. There’s no such thing as a rush hour in D.C, because no one is ever in an actual rush. It’s wonderful to be in a city where the pace is set to ‘amble’, you can see sky and trees, and where there are streets and streets of colourful gingerbread houses and wide avenues filled with colossal pieces of classical architecture. It might be built on a swamp and horrifically humid, but it’s a beautiful, vibrant, fascinating place to be. I love it.

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I was staying with one of my best friends, who I met at university. She lives right next to the zoo, and I spent a magical first night sleeping on her balcony, encased in the warmth of the balmy D.C. climate and listening to the peacocks calling to one another in the bird enclosure below. The next day, up bright and early, we headed to the arboretum, on the other side of town. It consists of hectares and hectares of land filled with trees from every state of the US, and is a lovely spot to come and explore. We particularly enjoyed the Bonsai tree section, and I loved seeing the original columns from the Capitol, taken down at some point in the 19th century, and resurrected here, in the middle of a field. It’s a striking sight. So is Union Market, a fabulously renovated warehouse space just around the corner which is now filled with a variety of  upmarket food stores and counter restaurants. We popped in for some lunch and had an amazing beef and horseradish bagel at Buffalo and Bergen along with one of their signature handmade sodas. I tried blackberry spice, and it was the best fizzy drink I’ve ever tasted!

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The following days were a pleasant round of leisurely strolls, delicious meals and wonderful sights. I saw fluorescent frogs and majestic lions at the zoo. I had the best french toast at Open City. I bought some lovely antiques at the Georgetown Flea Market. I saw wonderful photographs of contemporary and historical America at the Museum of American Art. I discovered a new favourite painter. I saw Julia Child’s kitchen at the Museum of American History. I learned about Native American tribes at the striking National Museum of the American Indian. I saw indigenous Hawaiian plants at the Botanical Garden. I pretended to wave at the President through the gates of the White House. I marvelled at the scale of the Capitol. I found myself surprisingly pleased by the aesthetics of the range of mid century concrete office buildings downtown. I finally got to enjoy the witty and fascinating company of Thomas. I strolled around the other Roosevelt Island and was inspired by Roosevelt’s wise words to all men. I drank gallons of iced tea, went to a proper American shopping mall and devoured the most amazing cookies known to mankind. I never had to wear a cardigan. It was a wonderful week. By the time I boarded the bus back to New York, I’d switched allegiances. The Big Apple needs to up its game. The Big Swamp is where it’s really at.

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Sunny Surrey

Polesden Lacey

I had hoped to visit Hastings this past weekend, but rather typically, the one iffy day we had weather wise was on Saturday, when my university friend Emma had planned to come up from London and go to the seaside with me. Undaunted, we flicked through the pages of my National Trust guidebook and decided to pop over the county border to Surrey for the day, taking in an Edwardian mansion and a famous beauty spot featured in one of my favourite novels.

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Our first port of call was Polesden Lacey, a picturesque mansion set amidst the Surrey Hills just outside of Dorking. It was extensively remodelled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from an earlier house, and its last owner was Mrs Margaret Greville, a famous Edwardian hostess. Despite being born illegitimate on the back streets of Glasgow, she grew up to become an intimate of royalty and the wife of an aristocrat. The Queen’s parents spent part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey, and it was soon evident as to why they would have chosen such a spot. The house is exquisite inside, with a series of beautifully decorated rooms that manage to both be wonderfully palatial and comfortably cosy. The internal phone lines meant that guests could contact servants at the lift of a receiver, communicating exactly what they wanted and having it brought to them in minutes. The bathroom sinks are made of silver, the hallways are hung with what was then some of the most valuable art in a private collection, and every room has glorious views either across the surrounding countryside or onto the beautiful gardens. Mixing the comforts of the highest end hotels with the cosiness of a home meant that Mrs Greville never lacked house guests, and as she was widowed shortly after moving into Polesden Lacey and never had children, she thoroughly enjoyed always having the house alive with laughter and conversation.

Polesden Lacey Garden

The house is set in absolutely delightful gardens, which have amazing views across the hills that undulate from the steeply sloping lawns into the far distance. Formal lawns give way to colourful wildflower meadows, a walled rose garden creates wonderful fragrances and rambling vines trail across the Italian-looking terrace at the back of the house. I could just imagine the ladies in white tea gowns strolling along the gravel paths and picnicking on the lawn. To have been a guest here must have been quite the experience.

Dorking Church

As the sun began to break through the clouds later in the afternoon, we decided to move on to our next destination. Firstly, however, we thought we’d stop off in the local town of Dorking to see if there was anything worth visiting. A depressing main high street soon gave way to a lovely range of little alleys and streets filled with higgledy piggledy 18th and 19th century buildings, most of which are now high end antique shops, and we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful and imposing church behind the modern shopping centre. There wasn’t much to write home about, though, and after 30 minutes of strolling, we headed back to the car and on to Box Hill.

Box Hill

As all Austenites will know, Box Hill is the backdrop to a scene of great importance in Emma. Emma’s badly judged criticism of Miss Bates during the Box Hill picnic leads to a nasty ticking off from Mr Knightley, which I would argue is the catalyst for both Emma and Mr Knightley realising the strength of their feelings for one another. I have wanted to go to the real Box Hill and see the view that the Highbury picnickers would have enjoyed for years, but for one reason or another, I never got around to it. Driving up the incredibly steep and winding road to the top, I kept thinking what an ordeal it would have been to get horses and carts full of food and people up there, presumably before a proper road was built, too. Emma’s day to Box Hill would have been a real expedition. Nowadays there is a car park and a National Trust shop and cafe at the summit, which makes it all very civilised. After a cup of tea and a slice of coconut and cherry cake, my Emma and I went off on the signposted route to take in the main sights. First was the viewing point, which provides a truly spectacular view across three counties, followed by the grave of a man who was buried head downwards as he thought the world would eventually turn upside down and he would then be the right way up, followed by a derelict fort. Then, back to the car park. There’s not masses to do if you’re not into hiking, but the view is definitely worth the trip; we could have sat there and watched the world go by for hours.

Ravilious Country

downsMy trip to the Sussex Downs during the Easter holidays already feels impossibly distant, but the memories of the quietly beautiful landscape have remained vivid and continue to inspire. There is something primal about the gently undulating hills and bleached, chalky soil; despite their close proximity to a number of bustling towns and cities, they are remarkably untouched by modernity. The scenes that Eric Ravilious captured in his quintessentially British watercolours of this area are still instantly recognisable today. No housing estates or motorways have sullied these peaks; they are an unchanged link to Ancient Britain, whose marks remain etched into the chalk face.

Downs in winter

We stayed in the small village of Firle, which Ravilious often stayed on the outskirts of with his friend Peggy Angus. Her cottage, Furlongs, was frequently host to raucous parties of bohemian artists coming to descend for the weekend, roughing the spartan conditions with typical bonhomie. We were delighted at the thought that Ravilious probably drank at the pub we stayed in, and came into the village to use the post office and village shop, which Virginia Woolf also would have done when she rented Little Talland House on the main street in 1911. Ravilious painted many pictures of Furlongs and its surroundings, but I had no idea of where it was, and in the snowy, freezing conditions we endured during our trip, it wasn’t exactly the weather to go roaming across the Downs to find it.

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Thank goodness for Donna; she had done her research, and was sure she could direct us to the right place. So, we jumped in the car and drove a short way outside of the village before branching off down a tiny lane. In the distance we saw a little flint cottage, but the track leading up to it was marked ‘Private’. Had I been alone, I would have hesitated, but with strength in numbers, we were determined to press on. Imagine our joy when we reached the top of the lane and found Furlongs, unchanged! It was somehow even more special to find Furlongs than it was to see Charleston; the unexpectedness of it, its lonely position and its surprising familiarity were strangely touching. It was quite the pilgrimage.

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