London Diary – Enchanting Italy

(Like other parts of the world, London is in lockdown, one upshot is that I finally found the time to blog about my trip to Italy.)

This is a 10 day holiday that took place at the end of October, 2019. My husband and I stayed 3 nights each in Florence, San Gimigano and Cinque Terre. We flew to Florence from London and back to London from Pisa. We didn’t need a car in Florence, but did preserve a car for the rest of the trip.

Three superb destinations in one, it was one of the most wonderful vacations ever. Each location is distinctively unique but all boast beautiful scenery, great arts and culture, delicious food and wine, fun shopping, sunny and warm weather to boot. I loved them all.


Is a beautiful town and easy to visit, everything is centrally located and within walking distance. We stayed at a B&B located at Piazza Firenze, which is brilliantly convenient, just around the corner to famous Piazza Della Signoria, a few blocks to Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, and a few blocks to Uffizi Gallery and River Arno.

We booked in advance for Uffizi Gallery, Gallery of Academy, where Michelangelo’s David is the main draw, and dome of Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, which comes as a joint ticket with the Baptistery. One can also climb to top of the free standing bell tower at the cathedral, Giotto’s Campanile. Not having time for both, I opted for the taller cathedral dome. It is a 463 step climb but worthy for the spectacular view from the top. All are well worth a visit, and a good idea to book in advance. Other recommendations, check out Palazzo Vecchio at Piazza Della Signoria and Ponte Vechio (the bridge over River Arno topped with jewelry shops), take a walk along River Arno to Piazzale Michelangelo for stunning views, taste rich variety of Italian meats and wine, shop and eat at Marcato Centrale. Italian leather goods are famous for its quality and design and one find plenty in Florence at reasonable price. A special mention to Fish Lab at Piazza Firenze, a great little place to eat.


It is interesting and important to know that Tuscany’s famous wine Chianti is differentiated as Chianti Classico and Chianti, which are two different DOCG, with two different areas of production and characteristics. Chianti Classico is produced in the Chianti region spanning from Florence to Siena. Its symbol is a black rooster. Chianti is produced outside of the Chianti region.

Most popular destinations in Tuscany are towns and wineries in the Chianti region. Classico Route travels through the region connecting Florence to Siena.

My visit to Tuscany is based on this insight and I chose to stay close to San Gimigano. On the first day, driving from Florence to San Gimigano, we followed the Classico Route, stopping at Castello di Verrazzano and Vignamaggio (two wineries near the town of Greve), and two ancient towns of Panzano and Rada. On second and third day, we explored San Gimigano.

Chianti is enchanting. Rolling hills, acres and acres of vineyards, olive groves, cypresses and charming villas, its scenery is idyllic and mesmerizing. Never had I seen before such heavenly blend of natural beauty and human ingenuity.  

We stayed at Facttoria Voltrona, 15 minutes south of San Gimigano. It was dark when we arrived and we couldn’t see the surrounding at all. The next morning when I stepped out to the balcony, I was greeted by a wonderful vista of green hills, floats of morning mist in the valley, silhouettes of a villa preceded by cypresses and a hamlet perched on a high hill further beyond, all emerged picture perfect under a magnificent sunrise. I was gripped with joy!

Facttoria Voltrona is a charming Agrotourismo tucked in a secluded corner. An unpaved road connecting with the motor way ends here, no through traffic, only foot paths leading to Montauto (the diminutive hamlet on a high hill further beyond) and San Gimigano, among others. Montauto is visible from both of Voltrona’s villas. San Gimigano can be seen at the second villa across fields of vineyards and it makes a lovely picture.

Truffle hunting and wine tasting at Tenuta Torciano

Was a great experience. It was interesting to learn that while black truffles can be cultivated, white truffles can only be found naturally in northern Italy and that dog moms are fed with truffles to produce milk with truffle flavor and aroma and dog babies are thereby trained to identify truffles since birth.

San Gimigano

Is a charming medieval town with many distinctive rectangular towers. We had great fun walking through town, visiting, tasting meat and wine, and shopping.

Highest tower is Torre Grossa, which is part of Palazzo Public (Town Hall), and is located at San Gimigano’s main square, Piazza del Duomo, and right next to the cathedral. I highly recommended it, the view from the top is fabulous!

Another main square in town is Piazza della Cisterna, surrounded by interesting medieval houses, which now house hotels, shops and restaurants. The cistern underneath the piazza is capped by a travertine octagonal pedestal with steps, where tourists are often found to congregate. Vernaccia is a local specialty, a white wine produced only in San Gimigano. Borgo Tellena is a large wine and food store. Ristorante le Vecchie Mura is a super restaurant with beautiful dishes and a terrace with wonderful views.


We stopped over in Pisa for a few hours on route to Cinque Terre and had time only for The White Field of Miracle, main attraction of Pisa. You can get join tickets for The Leaning Tower and Baptistery. Cathedral is free. It was pouring the entire time but still great to have visited. We did the touristy photo shots too, cliché but fun.

Cinque Terre

Means five villages in Italian. Built on the rugged Ligurian coast, Cinque Terre is dramatic and beautiful. Every turn and twist, from the villages, the footpaths in between or the sea, there is a postcard worthy picture waiting for you.

The villages are, from southeast to northwest, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Varnazza and Monterosso. Riomaggiore is the largest of the five, Corniglia the smallest and the only one perched atop a cliff far above the sea. Monterosso is the second largest but flattest, and boasts the best beach and a much coveted promenade. The most magnificent sunset is from Nessum Dorma in Manarola. While each has a spectacular belvedere, a better view of Corniglia is from the foot path leading to Vanarzza. The highest point is Prevo, a miniature hamlet midpoint on the footpath connecting Corniglia and Varnazza. The best view of all five villages is from the road not far outside of Riomaggiore’s village gate, leading onto SP370 towards La Spezia.

All are packed with colorful houses huddling against each other and all built on steep slopes. For those who are not fit enough, the best bet is to take the trains between the villages. For those who are able, it is worth exploring the villages on foot and walk the footpaths connecting the villages.

In addition to the fantastic views, the local cuisines featuring lots seafood are fabulous.

London Diary – Merry Christmas!!

Dec 25, 2019

Merry Christmas to you with an ensemble of beautiful Christmas trees in London.

London Diary – Beatles, Mayflower, Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall

Aug 23-26, 2019

Wow, it was almost a perfect holiday in Plymouth, Devon and neighboring places in Cornwall. The area is peppered with scenic spots and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Plymouth’s got some very impressive historic landmark, Francis Drake, Captain Cook, Charles Darwin, and the Mayflower all set sail from its harbors, Arthur Donan Doyle lived in a building on the Hoe, and a spot on the Hoe where Beatles took a famous group photo is now marked with 4 metal plates for fans to create their own Beatles-esque moment. While the rest of the city still looks sluggish, the waterfront area has been done up very nicely. And OMG, I loved the fresh local seafood, offered at reasonable price too.

Beautiful Saltram House with lovely garden and ground made a relaxing day out. It has connection with Jane Austen’s older brother Henry and it is said that Jane herself had corresponded with Lady Morley about Emma. And yes, it’s what led me to the discovery of this area :o) It is also the filming location for 1995 Sense and Sensibility as Norland. It is now a National Trust property.

Cotehele is a breathtaking Tudor Mansion in Calstock, Cornwall. It seems to have stand still in time and simply is evocatively beautiful. It also comes with an impressive collection of weaponries and beautiful tapestries. The house is located on a hill within view of Calstock Valley. The extensive estate ground is situated on the bank of River Tamar and includes some advantageous viewpoints, Prospect Tower for sweeping country sight and Calstock Lookout for exhilarating view of Calstock Valley and Viaduct. The estate also includes a mill, the largest mill complex I’ve seen. We also discovered that coincidentally Cotehele, now a National Turst property, used to be owned by Edgcumbe family, same family that also owned Edgcumbe House, which is next on my list. Cotehele is the most fascinating house and ground I’ve visited!

The story of Edgcumbe family and Mount Edgcumbe House and Park is one that leaves you feeling awed, and a twinge of sadness. The Edgcumbes owned the land and house at Cotehele and Mount Edgcumbe since around 1353. In the Victorian era, the house become a grand castle and the family called Queen Victoria and Prince Albert their friends. The family unfortunately was dealt a double tragedy during WWII, its heir and future 6th Earl of Edgecumbe was killed in the war and the house was bombed to rabbles. With no other direct male heir, the estate passed to a second cousin in 1947. The 6th earl of Edgcumbe faced dual jeopardy, a ruined house and death duties. The brave soul soldiered on and embarked on restoring the house, applying for government funding and negotiating deals to avoid the death penalty. The house was restored based on its Tudor form, much smaller than it was before the bombing. It was nevertheless finally finished in 1974 and lived in by his family for a number of years. Eventually the 8th Earl relinquished the ownership and it is now jointly owned by Plymouth City Council and Cornwall.

Edgcumbe House and Park occupy north east corner of Cremyl Peninsular in Cornwall, which sits on the south bank of river Tamar, opposite to Plymouth’s Royal William Yard north of the river.  The gardens and views along the riverside are delightful. The house is located on a hill with delightful views of the great lawn sloping down towards River Tamar and Plymouth across the river.

P.S. There is a magnificent view point at B3247/Marker Lane.

London Diary – Box Hill inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma

Aug 17, 2019

An excursion to Box Hill, Surrey, inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, turned out wonderfully well. Despite the cloudy and rainy forecast, weather was lovely all the way through. One can drive up but we took the steep climb from Burford Meadow and Stepping Stones. Views along the way are delightful and the most spectacular is from Solomon’s Monument. P.S. P8 is Juniper Hall seen from Box Hill. P9 is Burford Bridge Hotel at the foot of Box Hill and it is said that Jane Austen stayed there. P10 is a Blue Plaque found at Westhumble Village nearby. It shows Fanny Burney, whose novels were read and enjoyed by Jane Austen, once lived in the village.

London Diary – St Albans

Aug 10, 2019

A lovely day out in St Albans with friends Amanda and Ian. St Albans is an old town rich in history. We did the ‘A Roman City Revealed’ tour, very interesting. Its grand Cathedral features an interesting talk in the choir by a “Benedictine Monk”, telling story of days when they did 8 prayers a day including 2 hours in the middle of the night and drinking up to 8 pints of beer a day.

London Diary – Polesden Lacey

Aug 3, 2019

Polesden Lacey in Surrey is beautiful inside and out, boasting an amazing collection of paintings and Chinese china from the Qing dynasty, a lovely garden and a great lawn in front of the house, looking out to the lovely woodland and valley. Visitors were enjoying themselves on the lawn, relaxing and having picnics. The story of Maggie Graville, last owner of the house, is one of the most interesting. Her father made his wealth from brewing beer, and married her mother, who was an illiterate servant girl, when Maggie was 21. She as the only child inherited huge wealth from her father and no expense was spared in fixing up Polesden Lacey to be fit for a king. Edward VII was her friend and often stayed at Polesden Lacey. George V was not a fan of her father and didn’t favor her at first until she hinted she might give Polesden Lacey to Prince Bertie. Bertie and his bride spent their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. When Maggie died in 1942, she however did not give Bertie the house but gave it to National Trust instead. She did leave the royal family all her jewelries, a whole case of 40 some pieces of valuable jewelries. Among others, an all diamond tiara was seen on the queen mother Duchess of Cornwall, and Princess Eugenie.

London Diary – Opera at Waterperry House

Jul 27, 2019

Along with a group of friends, we enjoyed a brilliant operatic rendition of Mansfield Park at the ballroom of Waterperry House. A stroll in the beautiful garden and a picnic before performance only enhanced the pleasure.

London Diary –Independence Day Picnic

Jun 30, 2019 Some say Picnic is an English invention. I can believe that. Temperate summer climate makes outdoor activities an absolute delight. Sunday Jun 30 was just such a perfect day for DAUK’s annual Independence Day Picnic at Portman Square Garden.

London Diary – Jane Austen Regency Week in Hampshire

June, 2019

Jane Austen Regency Week in Hampshire this year runs from June 22nd to 30th. Opening weekend featured Festival Fair on Alton’s High Street, Regency Ball at Alton Assembly Room, a talk by Caroline Knight, and afternoon picnic at Chawton House which included a reading by Susannah Harker, aka Jane Bennett of BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and other entertainment. It is one of the best Jane Austen experience we’ve had. At Chawton, beauty of a quintessential English village was at full display and the presence of Jane Austen’s world was wonderfully palpable. P.S. A visit to the area is not complete without a stop at Steventon. First two photos are Steventon Church and the field where the former vicarage used to stand.

London Diary – English Riviera – Torquay

May, 2019

Torquay is a seaside town in Devon and the main attraction of the English Riviera. During its golden age in the late 1800s Torquay attracts the rich and the privileged; the Prince of Wales visited in 1864. Since then, Torquay has gone through many changes.

In the center of town and most popular tourist area is the delightful waterfront promenade, which is spread between the two iconic hotels, The Grand Hotel and The Imperial Hotel.  

It is also known as Agatha Christie Mile. Torquay is Agatha Christie’s childhood home and you’d find many reminders of her connection to Torquay. Among others, annual Agatha Christie Festival is held in Torquay, there is an Agatha Christie Gallery at Torquay Museum, you can stay at Agatha Christie Suite at The Grand Hotel, there is an Agatha Christie bust near the Princess Garden and there are many Agatha Christie plaques marking spots connected to her. Greenway, Agatha Christie’s last home, is located on the bank of Dart River only 30 minutes away.

The Grand Hotel and The Imperial Hotel are two iconic hotels from the Victorian age. Agatha Christie honeymooned at The Grand Hotel. The Imperial Hotel is featured in Agatha Christied’s Hercule Poirot, Peril at the End House. While The Grand Hotel has retained its former Victorian architecture, The Imperial Hotel has mysteriously changed into its current dull form from its formerly attractive Victorian style.

For those who enjoy coastal walks, there are plenty in the area. We took a short one between The Imperial and Meadfoot Beach. A famous landmark on this route is a natural arch known as the London Bridge. At Meadfoot Beach is The Osbourne Hotel where Charles Darwin stayed.

The mile long Kent’s prehistoric Cavern is interesting. Only guided tour are offered. Our guide was infromative and funny, he gave us an interesting experience. In one of the chambers, he turned off all lights and showed the group what darkest darkness is like. Certainly not something that I could have imagined.

Torry Abbey is beautiful with interesting history and you’d find in its garden, Agatha Christie Potent Plants, a poisonous plant garden. Cockington just a few minutes south of town center is a different world. The art studios at Cockington Court are very interesting. I found something at Our Glass to take home with. Visit the interesting old church and don’t miss the Sanctuary Bar at the church door. Next door is the tranquil Cockington Village with thatch roofed cottages. Totnes, a former market town, is not far so we stopped by and were just in time to visit Totnes Castle. Dinner at King Williams IV, a pub, before heading home was just great.