Tag Archives: Italy

Amberlair – the world’s first crowdsourced & crowdfunded boutique hotel

‘Boutique hotels with a reverse approach: Create an audience first, let our future guests have a say, and then comes the hotel. The Amberlair concept has the guest experience at its heart and we firmly believe it has the potential to revolutionize the way hotels are built, designed and operated.’

‘Our community of backers – who we dearly address as #boholovers, meaning boutique hotel lovers – are involved from day one, both creatively and financially. Even our name was crowdsourced, because a hundred minds work better than one.’

‘And guess what? Our community has also chosen the location of the first Amberlair in Italy. With the help of our community, we are going to develop a historic villa in Puglia, Italy, and to turn it into the perfect boutique hotel.’

The main villa at Amberlair’s Puglia property

Amberlair is the vision of Kristin Lindbergh & Marcus Orbee after several years travelling and researching, and it is fast becoming a reality.

I love travelling, especially to Italy. And I’ve taken a keen interest in the development of crowdfunding as a funding mechanism for entrepreneurs and as an opportunity for investors….as long as they are aware of the inherent risks. So digging into the unique Amberlair concept was too interesting to miss.

Kristin and Marcus have been kind enough to answer some questions about themselves,  Amberlair and Puglia….I hope you’ll find this Q&A session with them interesting:

Q. you have both spent some time touring the world, evaluating the boutique hotels market. Did you always have in mind that this was specifically to research what has become the Amberlair project, or was it a more speculative trip?

A: When we made the life-changing decision seven years ago to travel the world, we could not even imagine that the impact and inspiration would lead us to create Amberlair. On a Saturday morning in 2010, Marcus decided to quit his senior strategic planning role on the implementation of the Airbus A380 to act on a long-overdue passion. He wanted to travel the world. And because Kristin had made travel part of her life for years, lived in different countries and was working in the tourism industry, she was eager to begin a new adventure as well.

So, we packed up and began our travels for over two years and through more than 40 countries on six continents. Traveling to this extent (we became exposed to so many different cultures and lifestyles!) gave us a new perspective, and exploration fueled our creativity.

During our trip, we discovered that the most special and unique experiences were brought on by staying in smaller, independent hotels. The hip hideaways we found gave us a taste of the local culture and people. We learned how these small businesses operated, and it was so refreshing to discover that none of these owners came from a hospitality background; these hotels were driven by passion. We soon realized that we were not the only avid travellers who preferred to get a truly authentic experience through boutique hotels.

We did encounter some difficulty in our quest to find the best boutique hotels around the world. They were hard to find. In some countries, we couldn’t find a single boutique hotel. The big chain hotels and cookie cutter accommodations simply lacked the same personal and authentic touch that we loved about our favorite boutique accommodations. It was at this point that we felt the urge to do something. How could we make boutique hotels more accessible to travelers, while still tapping into the passion and knowledge that made these spots so special?

This period of travel, inspiration and discovery sparked something in us that would ultimately become the motivating factor for launching Amberlair…

Q: how did you settle on Puglia for the first Amberlair property? I think the crowd voted for this special location in the heel of Italy, but what due diligence did you do on the location first and what others were on the shortlist for the crowd to vote on?

A: Amberlair is the world’s first crowdsourced boutique hotel brand that has taken a revolutionary ‘reverse’ approach to the way hotels are built and conceptualized. First, we created our online global community of boutique hotel lovers and brand followers, establishing a relationship with them from day one to create potential lifelong guests before the hotels are even built.

We then worked with our community to crowdsource their ideas, from choosing the name of our company to the location of the first hotel and will continue to do so throughout the process, shaping the hotel’s eventual design and service amenities to create the ideal boutique hotel, designed by its future guests. Our community of supporters are typically global travellers who don’t like ‘cookie cutter’ hotels. Creative and social minds who have great ideas and strong opinions, and who are ready to put their hearts into the project. They overwhelmingly chose Italy as the location of our first hotel. They spoke and we listened, seeking out the perfect location and the perfect property to develop.

To us, Puglia had such an authentic and powerful sense of identity, much like we have seen in Ibiza, Marrakech and Tulum. It has 500 miles of coastline and the best beaches in Italy. It offers simple, yet excellent and high quality Italian food. It’s full of culture and has lots of UNESCO world heritage sites: Trulli of Alberobello, the Baroque city of Lecce, Castel del Monte, etc. It has beautiful white washed hill top towns, like Cisternino, Ostuni and Martina Franca. In 2013, Puglia was listed among the top 10 world destinations for wine tourism in Wine Enthusiast’s annual ranking. International tourism in Puglia increased by 56% from 2007 to 2014.

Image courtesy of TripSavvy

We conducted an extensive location study and deep dive into researching luxury accommodations in the area. We did this with Jan Hazelton, who is our head of development. Jan has extensive experience in hotel investments and was previously Vice President of Development in Europe for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. While the region has a strong demand for 4-5 star hotels, there has been a lack of true ‘boutique’ hotels, until now!

The three most popular locations on our shortlist were Spain, Italy and South Africa, with Portugal, United Kingdom, California, Iceland and the Alps also making it onto the list.

Q: how did you go about deciding which crowdsourcing & crowdfunding platforms to use? I think you’re currently raising €15,000 on Indiegogo and 6,000,000 on The Angel Investment Network? Which other platforms have you considered?

A: Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are at the heart of the Amberlair concept. With the current equity crowdfunding campaigns on Fundable and Angel Investment Network, we are looking to raise approximately about 6 Million Euros, along with 15,000 Euros through reward based crowdfunding on Indiegogo https://igg.me/at/amberlair. There are a lot of platforms out there and we spent a long time researching the right one for our particular project. We chose these because they gave us the best distribution to potential supporters and backers, and had the most compatible infrastructure to host our campaigns.

Q: the €15,000 you’re currently raising on Indiegogo is obviously a small amount in terms of your overall funding requirements for the Puglia property. What will you use the €15,000 for, and is this as much about finding more brand ambassadors at this stage, as it is about the cash flow? 

A: The funds raised through Indiegogo will finance the architectural plans required to turn the historic villa we have found in Puglia into the perfect boutique hotel. Additionally, we have an incredibly passionate boutique hotel lover community and we hope we will attract more through our crowdfunding campaign, which will highlight our revolutionary approach to hotel development. Added to this, our equity crowdfunding offering is a very attractive investment, with the possibility to own a share of the business and asset for as little as 2,500 Euros. Investors will receive a share of the real estate asset, along with an eventual IRR of between 30-35%.

Equity crowdfunding links:

Q: I think it’s a really exciting concept to have the crowd give opinions on everything from the brand to food to room decor, but how do you anticipate this ‘democratisation’ will work in practice? How will you manage the different views of so many investors, and will you have the final say? And will you have a traditional Board structure to execute operational decisions?

A: Amberlair supporters can be involved throughout the process in order to help us create their perfect boutique hotel. Backers will be able to participate, interact, influence, back, fund or simply lay back and watch it all happen!

Our community can always suggest ideas and give  their opinions and we will try to turn as many of those ideas as possible into a reality, as long as it reflects and respects the overall history and style of the property and locale. At certain key stages of the project, we will canvas ideas and put the top suggestions out for a vote, for example, what shall we do with the large birdhouse on the estate, what shape of pool do they want, etc.?

We don’t have a board of directors, but we (Kristin and Marcus) will have the final say, along with our management team of hotel experts.

Q: In your financials, you anticipate a total of €18.8m from EU subsidies. What is the process to apply for these grants, and what contingency plans are in place for alternative funding in the event that the subsidies aren’t received, either in part or in full?

A. There are several criteria we need to meet in order to apply for the EU subsidies. Italy is not the easiest country to develop in, but we have a strong team of local architects and designers on board who have helped us to ensure that our proposed works conform to all building regulations in the local area.

We will go through the process of applying for permits from the local authorities once we have raised the funds to acquire the property, but do not anticipate there being any issues with this. We have done a feasibility study to anticipate any challenges along the way, from securing the right licences and change of use permits, to finding the right building contractor to deliver the project on time.

We are positive that we have allowed for all the possible outcomes, but guess that dealing with unexpected challenges all part of the fun of developing a hotel!

Q: I love your concept of building the audience before building the property. Do you know of comparable business models in any other sector, do you think, or do you believe your approach for Amberlair is truly innovative, in the hospitality sector at least? 

A. We haven’t come across any other projects like ours, where the community and future guests are involved in creating their perfect boutique hotel from scratch, being involved from day one in decisions like choosing our name, voting on our first location, making decisions about converting the property we have found into a hotel.

A few years ago, Marriott ran a small online digital survey asking guests to vote on three different mock-up room designs, which is the only other crowdsourcing we have seen in the hospitality sector. In 2015 Amberlair was included in World Travel Market’s annual Global Trends Report as leading the way in crowdsourced boutique hotels.

Q:  have you already begun to think about likely destinations and funding mechanisms for property #2 and property #3? How will you ensure there’s enough operational focus on the Puglia property #1, whilst also strategically planning for Amberlair’s longer term future?  

A: We owe it to our backers and supporters to get the first Amberlair property right, and that is our focus for now, but we are always looking for new growth opportunities.

Our longer-term plan is to open up to 50 hotels globally in the next 20 years. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are at the heart of the Amberlair concept, so we will continue to develop the company along those lines for future projects.

Thanks to Kristin & Marcus for such detailed and thoughtful answers. I wish them well with Amberlair and hope that I can get to meet them soon, and visit Puglia to see the site of the first Amberlair boutique hotel.

Book review – Beautiful Animals

I have wanted to visit Hydra since reading Sylvie Simmons’ superb biography of Leonard Cohen, and discovering that it was where Leonard Cohen lived happily for many years in the bohemian 1960s.

Leonard Cohen on Hydra – image from GTP Headlines

The urge has only been heightened since reading Beautiful Animals, an unsettling book written by Lawrence Osborne, which places the reader firmly on this tiny Saronic island, in Greece’s Aegean Sea and almost touching the Peloponnese.

Naomi knows Hydra intimately, spending every languid summer there at the family holiday home with her wealthy father, Jimmie Codrington, and spiky stepmother Phaine.

One day, returning from her secret daily morning swim in a quiet cove beyond Mandraki and Zourva, Naomi meets the preppy American Haldane family.

The other girl was younger than Naomi, maybe nineteen or twenty to her twenty-four, with eyes that were steady and cool: perhaps like herself a student of human beings and their calamities.’

Naomi and Samantha become close, their friendship taking a darker turn after they stumble across a half naked man sleeping in a remote part of the island. Later, they learn that Faoud is a migrant, fleeing Syria on the well-worn trail in search of a safer Europe.

Naomi concocts a plan to help the intriguing Faoud, but what are her real motives…and when it goes badly wrong, can any of their lives be the same again?

The author has been compared to Graham Greene, and I can understand why after reading this haunting novel. Covering multiple themes and with Greene’s eye for physical and psychological detail, he embeds the reader deep inside the troubled heads of his characters and under the blazing sun of a Greek summer, before making a dash for freedom with Faoud through southern Italy.

For me, place is everything… I spend more time thinking about that than anything.’

Lawrence Osborne

Thank you, Lawrence….see you on Hydra.

 

Book review – The Talented Mr Ripley

Read the book first, then see the film is the usual advice, right?

Well, I saw the marvellous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley soon after it was released back in 1999, but hadn’t read the book until now.  The film version was beautifully crafted by Anthony Minghella as both Screenwriter and Director, and perfectly acted by a stellar cast, including Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles).

So how would Patricia Highsmith’s novel, a psychological thriller written in 1955, compare?

Tom is a feckless freeloader, struggling to make a living in New York City. He grabs the opportunity offered by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy and coax his spoiled son Dickie back to face his responsibilities in the US.

But Tom is soon as much enamoured with the languid self-indulgence of life in Mongibello as Dickie. One fly in the Italian ointment is Marge, a fellow American who has clearly fallen for Dickie, though more than he for her.  And later there is also the irritating problem of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s, who is becoming suspicious of Tom’s motives.

The plot develops around exotic Italy, from Mongibello to San Remo, Rome and Venice, with the devious Tom using his many talents to ensure he can pursue as sybaritic a lifestyle as Dickie.

“Underneath he would be as calm and sure of himself as he had been after Freddie’s murder, because his story would be unassailable. Like the San Remo story. His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.

Ambiguity is at the heart of this classic novel, including the sexual inclinations of the main protagonists….just as they were for the author.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s undoubted talents, but is it literary sacrilege to admit that – on this occasion, at least – I preferred the adaptation on the big screen?

Film from Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Into Film.

 

 

Theatre review – The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I have never read Master Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona,  nor seen it performed. Until last night, when the always excellent Guildford Shakespeare Company brought the comedy to vibrant life, in the beautiful gardens of the University of Law and transported to glitzy Italy in the 1950s.

(images from GSC website)

The Two Gentlemen was Shakespeare’s first published play. It is considered to be weaker than the many classics that followed, but it does introduce common themes that he returns to time and time again – love and friendship; infidelity and betrayal; dominating fathers and recalcitrant children; and a girl dressing as a boy.

The two young Veronese gentlemen are best friends Valentine and Proteus. Proteus falls in love with Julia. Valentine leaves for Milan, where he falls in love with Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. Proteus is told by his father to travel to Milan too, where he falls instantly in love with Silvia.

Poor, weak Proteus is completely undone by the urge to obtain the new object of his desire, whatever the cost. Friendship is put aside, betrayal ensues, but contrasted by steadfast loyalty and – ultimately – forgiveness.

This innovative production, directed by Charlotte Conquest, never flags. Comedy quickly overcomes the play’s darker themes, and GSC co-founder Matt Pinches lets rip with his usual array of comic voices – as a slow, West Country station announcer before the curtain comes up, and then as Launce, Proteus’s servant, played with a Welsh accent as broad that of the Pontypool  front row,

But the undoubted star of this production of The Two Gentlemen is Launce’s canine companion Crab. Played by three separate actors throughout the 16 night run, Tiba had Launce – and the entire audience – eating out of his paw last night.

Another triumph for the exuberant Guildford Shakespeare Company. Like Master Will, they just get better and better.

 

 

Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays

My feature on a sponsored trip to Oristano, Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays  – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

Felice Soru, founder of Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays, told me before I went that a trip to Sardinia is a discovery. The island is like a separate continent, with different landscapes and cultures – even languages – and with a wild, ungovernable centre.

I went to the central west coast, to the province of Oristano, an area of Sardinia that is also wild and relatively unspoiled, which is rich in history and with plenty of nature, activities, food and wine to enjoy, whilst remaining accessible.

History

Unpeel layer upon layer of history as you explore this continuously surprising area.

Sinis peninsulaGo to the Sinis peninsula, a marine protected area, to see the remains of the ancient settlement of Tharros. Reputed to have been founded by the Phoenicians towards the end of the 8th century BC, it was one of the most important cities in Sardinia through the Punic age, from the 6th century BC until Roman occupation. But there is some evidence suggesting that Tharros was occupied before the Phoenicians, by the Nuraghic civilisation in the much earlier Bronze Age.

TharrosThere are an estimated 7,000 examples of nuraghe, stone-built tower-fortresses from this ancient civilisation, dotted around Sardinia. One of the most important is the nuraghe Losa, near the village of Abbasanta. Here you’ll see a large complex construction in the shape of an old tomb, with a central triangular shape. A turreted wall is linked to this impressive core, and surrounded by later additions from Punic, Roman and Middle Ages occupation.

Back on the Sinis peninsula, visit San Giovanni di Sinis, one of Sardinia’s oldest and most important churches. Built with blocks of sandstone, probably brought from nearby Tharros, it is Byzantine, with distinctly Arabesque features.

Giants of Monte's PramaAnd one of the most important historic finds of recent years on this beguiling promontory is the Giants of Mont’e Prama. Farmers working the land a couple of kilometres from Cabras in the 1970s uncovered remains from the late Nuraghic period. Painstaking work has since pieced together Sardinia’s version of China’s terracotta warriors. As of today, 25 statues of large stone men – including warriors, archers and boxers – have been reconstructed, some of which are exhibited in Cabras Museum.

Nature

Wildlife abounds around Oristano. Flamingos inhabit the marshy lagoons, as do several rare aquatic bird species.

S'Archittu sunriseFor breathtaking beaches, head to Putzu Idu or the quartz-laden “rice sand” of Is Arutas and Maria Erma. But my favourite was probably S’Archittu, taking its name from the photogenic rock arch, one of Sardinia’s largest natural bridges, and through which you can swim or kayak.

If you’re adventurous, drive further south to explore the largest sand dunes in Europe, at Piscinas on the remote Costa Verde, and formed by the natural forces of the Mistral. But don’t get stuck in the sand.

Go inland to discover the special environment of the Giara di Gesturi, a high volcanic plateau now rich in flora and fauna, and inhabited by the island’s cherished wild horses.

Activities

Swim from the many beaches. Play golf at Is Arenas. Hike, cycle or twitch in the nature reserves. Take a boat out to the tiny island of Mal di Ventre (Italian for tummy ache!) for a snorkelling or diving expedition. It was near here that a shipwreck was discovered as recently as 1989, uncovering a scarcely believable cargo of almost 1,000 trapezoidal lead ingots, each weighing 33 kg and inscribed by their Roman owners from the 1st century BC.

Towns

BosaOristano is the provincial capital but take the coast road north to enchanting Bosa. Explore the narrow cobbled streets of the centro storico, head ever upwards amongst the crumbling pastel-coloured houses towards Malaspina Castle, and for a dazzling view over the red-roofed town, down towards the river Temo, snaking back towards Bosa beach and marina.

And enjoy the even more scintillating drive north along the coast – just into Sassari province – to Alghero, a vibrant Catalan fortified town, with towers, trebuchets and cannons a reminder of its more violent past.

Food and wine

Spaghetti con bottarga is a local food speciality, a simple but exceptional dish of pasta and mullet roe. Do NOT add cheese! Fregula (fregola) is the Sardinian equivalent of couscous, typically toasted semolina dough balls and often served with clams. Or try malloreddus, a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron and a tomato sauce.  Porcheddu – roast suckling pig – is a prized dish but not one for vegetarians.

But even in a trattoria in a small village, you’re likely to enjoy simple food, from well-prepared local ingredients and served with a Sardo smile.

Sardinian wines are much improved in recent years. Try the local dry white Vernaccia di Oristano, or the red Cannonau, little known outside the island, both excellent.

Where to stay

Is Benas Country LodgeHead for the Is Benas Country Lodge, an intimate retreat tucked away on the road to Putzu idu. With only 18 bedrooms and outstanding food and service, it feels more like a private country house than a hotel. A little isolated, it is a quiet refuge but within reach of all the many fascinating gifts this lesser know part of Sardinia offers the mature and inquisitive traveller.

Borgo Tranquillo in Italy’s le Marche region with One Off Places

My feature on Borgo Tranquillo, a remarkable One Off Places property in Italy’s le Marche region – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

One Off Places

Fancy staying in a shepherd’s cottage in Spain? A South American jungle lodge? Or perhaps a cave house in Andalucia?

Well, you could.

One Off Places specialises in individual, quality holiday accommodation around the world, and is a response to bland mass market tourism and properties.

Tabitha Symonds established One Off Places in 2007, after many years searching for her own perfect holiday property. Today, castles, gatehouses, windmills, lighthouses and train stations are among the quirky – but classy – places to rest your inquisitive traveller’s head.

So, Silver Travellers, if you’re not excited at the thought of yet another glitzy cruise, or a week in a large impersonal hotel on the Costa del Tourist, why not look instead at staying in a One Off Place?

Borgo Tranquillo

I was very lucky to spend a few days recently at the remarkable Borgo Tranquillo estate. Perched on its own spectacular hilltop, high in Italy’s le Marche region and in the foothills of the mighty Appennines, Borgo Tranquillo sits in 15 Marchigian acres and is a world away from its brash Tuscan neighbour, on the western side of the mountain range that divides Italy.

View from private balcony of Borgo TranquilloA couple of the years in the planning, and taking more than 3 years to build, Borgo Tranquillo is the epitome of a One Off Place. Designed by Frank and Ariane Andrew and completed almost 10 years ago, it is an antidote to their previous lives, Frank as an international designer and Ariane as a senior manager for Bloomberg.

An innate sense of space, calm and understated luxury pervades the whole estate. Stay in one of the four self-catering 88m2 1-bedroom loft-style apartments, or the 150m2 2-bedroom villa, and feel any stress you might have arrived with evaporate in minutes. Or as long as takes to drink the bubbling Prosecco you’ll be offered as soon as you arrive.

Borgo Tranquillo apartmentWe stayed in one of the apartments. Interiors are starkly contemporary, white minimalism interrupted judiciously with injections of vibrant colour and whimsical design features. The furniture and equipment in the beamed high-ceilinged open-plan lounge and kitchen, and bedroom, are of the highest quality and yet calming and comfortable.

Externally though, the buildings are more traditionally constructed, blending perfectly with the verdant, hilly landscape.

The separate Clubhouse and Spa building is the beating heart of the Borgo Tranquillo estate. Upstairs is a spectacular space for reading, relaxing, drinking from the generously provisioned free bar, and planning your day as you gaze out of the vast windows across the foothills of the Appennines.

Downstairs – via the unique locally crafted curving staircase – is the high quality spa. Warm up in the sauna and hammam before stepping outside to laze on one of the sun loungers, or chill out in the black infinity pool.

Hammock time on the Borgo Tranquillo estateNear the Clubhouse is a large boules – bocce in Italian – pitch and a small football area. Or why not beat the bounds of Borgo Tranquillo, walk around the undulating perimeter of the entire estate, listening to birdsong, watching for wildlife and just absorbing the beauty and calm of this special environment.

But if that’s all too energetic, just find the hammocks strung up under the shade of some canopy-providing trees, or take your cocktails to the sunset bench, along the thoughtfully mown path, perched peacefully on a prominent western hillock.

Le Marche

If you can ever drag yourself away from the luxurious serenity of Borgo Tranquillo, there are plenty of other attractions to explore in le Marche, which is often described as Italy’s best-kept secret.

Ariane and Frank thoughtfully provide an encyclopaedic guide of nearby restaurants, wineries, sightseeing, shopping, walking and much more.

The charming hilltop village of Arcevia is only a 5 minute drive away, and has artisan butchers, bakers and grocers, a couple of friendly local bars, a few restaurants and some beautiful ancient palazzos, churches and houses in its enchanting centro storico.

Beating the bounds at Borgo TranquilloAnd within the wider municipality of Arcevia, you can explore many other interesting, timeless towns and hamlets, each with their own character. On a sunny May Day holiday we stumbled across Avacelli, a small village just a short drive from Arcevia, and holding its annual Asparagus Festival. There wasn’t much of the vegetable on display, but it was a great excuse for local people to eat, drink, listen to traditional music and dance in the rough gravelled street.

The larger towns of Ancona and Urbino are also within easy reach. Art lovers will know that Urbino is the pinnacle of Renaissance art and architecture, and is the birthplace of Raffaello Sanzio, better known to us as Raphael, equal of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and whose masterpiece The School of Athens is one of the Vatican’s main frescoes.

For more athletic activities, the walking and cycling around Borgo Tranquillo are magnificent. Or swim in the Adriatic in the unspoiled seaside town of Senigallia, just 40 km from Arcevia and also offering some outstanding seafood restaurants.

One Off Silver Travellers

So why not explore the very individual properties on offer at One Off Places. And if Silver Travellers love Italy, the mountains, comfortable luxury, relaxation and activity, you really should think about staying in the Borgo Tranquillo. If you can avoid the peak summer months, the spring and autumn would be perfect times to stay at this special place, and to explore the beautiful region of le Marche.

Watch a video about Borgo Tranquillo Clubhouse

 

Exhibition review – Michelangelo & Sebastiano

A confession: my favoured art forms are books, theatre, films….and occasionally dance.

Not that I don’t appreciate art in its purest and most literal form, but I’m more likely to read a book to immerse myself in a cultural landscape, than rush to a city’s art gallery.

Nevertheless, I was very grateful to the lovely folks at TripFiction for passing over their invitation to the new Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery.

Detail from Sebastiano del Piombo, 'The Visitation', 1518-1519. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures (Inv. 357) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

It was a real privilege to attend the press launch, a day after Prince Charles had a private viewing but the day before the doors open to the public (March 15 to June 25, 2017). And the exhibition’s curator, Matthias Wivel, was on hand to give a level of insight not even achievable from the excellent audio guide.

The NG provides the first ever exhibition devoted to the creative partnership between Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). Some of the works on show have not previously left their own collections for centuries, so this really is a rather special display.

Sebastiano, a talented young Venetian painter, arrived in Renaissance Rome in 1511. He met the older Michelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the two artists became friends…and tactical allies against rival Raphael.

Sebastiano was the only oil painter in the Eternal City who could challenge Raphael, and was therefore the ideal collaborator for Michelangelo, who didn’t care for the medium of oil.

Sebastiano profited from his friend’s ideas, and together they created several works of great originality and rare beauty. Away from the canvass, their friendship flourished and a real bonus is the display of original letters between the two artists.

But after 25 years of artistic collaboration and personal friendship, the relationship soured so badly that arrogant Michelangelo rubbished Sebastiano’s legacy in the years following the younger man’s death.

The exhibition deftly charts their stories in 6 separate rooms, from early hope to eventual acrimony. But they left a remarkable joint legacy, and the NG has presented a dazzling portrait of both artists.

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo. Photograph: National Gallery:

Image result for the raising of lazarus sebastiano del piombo

 

Christmas Wine Taste Test Results

We sniffed, we looked, we held to the light, we checked for tears and legs, we sipped….and then we guzzled.

Image result for wine tasting clip art

Christmas Day in the Morris household (thanks, Paul & Carol) got off to a flying start, with a rather special wine tasting challenge.

I wrote before Christmas about how I was about to break open my first prized bottle of Sassicaia, from the renowned Tenuta San Guido estate, near the Tuscan coast. And how I didn’t think my oenophile brother would be able to tell the difference between a £120 bottle of wine, and a more modest £10 one.

I moved the goalposts a little, I must admit. The contenders were a decent Barolo (£20) and a more modest Cabernet-Merlot from the Barossa Valley in Oz (£10). Neither of which were direct Cabernet Sauvignon competitors for the mighty Sassicaia.

Image result for sassicaia

So the test was all about price v taste.

How did we do?

It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest. The only thing I can report with any confidence is that nephew Steve was the only guzzler to get all 3 wines in the right order. Take a bow, Steve. Move over, Bruv…the baton has been passed to the next generation.

What conclusions can we draw?

Absolutely none.

I probably didn’t let the wines breathe for long enough. They were all transported close to a lot of cheese. And some cranberry jelly. And we’d already drunk a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc, with some smoked salmon and other nibbly stuff. And we swallowed, rather than spat. And perhaps we just know a lot less about wine than we thought….

But it was fun.

I think the next bottle of Sassicaia will be opened in splendid isolation. No fraternising with cheese during transportation. No confusion with other wines, however extravagant or humble. And decanted, aerating for much longer. And perhaps eaten alongside some rather buonissimo Italian food.

But in the end, I guess all that matters is enjoyment. Whatever the price. A metaphor for life.

 

Christmas Cabernet Taste Test

It’s just over 2 years since I hung up my abacus, and entered the Retirement Zone. As a leaving present, my thoughtful and generous ex-colleagues at Runpath and lovemoney gave me 6 bottles of wine.

But not just any old wine.

2011 Sassicaia, Bolgheri Sassicaia, Tenuta San Guido, Tuscany

This was 6 bottles of Sassicaia, from the renowned Tenuta San Guido estate, on the Tuscan coast just south of Livorno and not far west of the enchanting towers of San Gimignano, in our beloved Italy.

Image result for san gimignano

Sassicaia is now recognised as one of the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. But it wasn’t always so. Read here about the interesting history of the estate, and about how the wine was only drunk privately from 1948 to 1967.

And this is what posh vintners Berry Brothers & Rudd say about it now:

Sassicaia is today one of the most sought-after fine wines in the world. This is largely because of the vision, energy and drive of proprietor Mario Incisa della Rocchetta.

The Sassicaia estate at Bolgheri came from Mario Incisa della Rocchetta’s wife’s family who had owned land there since 1800 – the name Sassicaia means,place of many stones, and the gravelly soil has been compared to those found in the Médoc. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and engaged the services of Piero Antinori`s winemaker, Giacomo Tachis.

Sassicaia’s first vintage was released to universal acclaim in 1968. Sassicaia is now widely accepted as one of the world`s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon wines and made history recently, being the first single wine to be granted its own DOC. The wines of Sassicaia combine intense notes of cassis and cedary elegance, with extraordinary power and length.

My own humble 6 bottles of the 2011 vintage have been laid down in bonded storage at BBR since 2014. But no longer. They have finally been released into my sweaty hands, awaiting suitable occasions to enjoy. And with my 60th year fast approaching, I’m not expecting any will survive until this time next year.

My brother Paul fancies himself as a bit of a oenophile.

Image result for oenophile cartoons

(image courtesy of Jantoo Cartoons)

Well, let’s find out, shall we?

I shall be uncorking my first prized bottle on Christmas Day, at the festive gathering of the Morris Mob. But to make it interesting, I’m going to give a blind tasting of 3 separate red wines.

Will Paul – or any other Morris – be able to tell the difference between an everyday drinking £8 Cab Sav from the Sunday Times Wine Club, a very decent £20ish option from the posh section at a supermarket, and the mighty 2011 Bolgheri Sassicaia Tenuto San Guido vintage, yours for around £120 a bottle?

Stay tuned to find out.

I just hope the Sassicaia has travelled well…..

City Lit Travel Writing Workshop

I’m indebted to my missus Gill and to my Mum & Dad for their generosity and thoughtfulness. They kindly paid for me to do the 3 day Travel Writing workshop at City Lit last week, for my birthday prezzie.

The inimitable Susan Grossman led a class of 11 eager students, sharing with us a wealth of knowledge and experience:

How to write evocative travel copy, work with the travel industry, get on press trips and sell your work. Theory plus observation and interview skills out and about in Covent Garden. For bloggers and journalists. 

We were set loose in Neal’s Yard, in the heart of Covent Garden, one hot Thursday afternoon in July. The brief was to write a short piece, within one of a few loose frameworks, but essentially to demonstrate what we had – hopefully – learned.

Here is my own humble offering. With a couple of small, but astute, tweaks from Susan:

A little slice of Italy in Neal’s Yard

We take the classic Italian pizza, but use very original ingredients for our toppings“, says the manager of Homeslice. Javier may be Spanish, but his piccolo restaurant in London’s Neal’s Yard is otherwise very much a small slice of Italy.

With a cosmopolitan twist.

Calabrian peppers are married with chervil and Lincolnshire poacher. Or try aubergine, cauliflower cheese, spinach and harissa. How about goat shoulder, savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt? All cooked in a wood-fired oven with an Italian accent, using mozzarella flown in twice a week from Naples, and eaten as a 20″ whole or by the slice.

Va bene for any Italian in London missing those home comforts.

Neal’s Yard, on the fringes of Covent Garden – between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street – and on the way to Holborn, is worth tracking down. Named after the 17th century developer, Thomas Neale, it’s crammed with Victorian warehouses, now eating places, posh hairdressers, therapy rooms and a pungent cheese emporium. Some are painted brightly, others still retain the original industrial brick facades.

Together, they create the atmosphere of a more intimate and colourful Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca.

Buonissimo!

Across the courtyard, in the recently opened Casanova & daughtersmanager Pablo Castelli from Rome explained that all their produce – tuna bresaola, anchovies, capers, cheeses, passata and sun-dried tomatoes – is sourced from small family estates on the west coast of Sicily. And their unique range of olive oils, barrelled like vintage wines, is the culmination of a careful and passionate process of olive growing and selection.

Authentic? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Inspector Montalbano showed up, asking if you knew the dead peccorino cheese-maker.

So if you’re in London but yearning for Italian passion on a plate, hunt out historic Neal’s Yard and feel right at home.

L’appetito vien mangiando, as the Inspector might say. The appetite comes from eating.