Tuscany: Beaches, wineries, and unmissable cities

The natural beauty of Tuscany, a region in central Italy, is every bit as mesmerising and varied as the picture postcards suggest, from the cypress-lined olive groves, to the wineries, to the long, untainted golden sands and beaches along the coast. This is a land where a gentle drive or peaceful saunter through the undulating countryside is an absolute joy, as you look down on an isolated farmhouse sitting amid swathes of lush green fields or over a sea of golden sunflowers beneath the rich blue sky. Yet a visit to Tuscany is far from complete without exploring some of the region’s magnificent cities, where you can witness the birth of Renaissance art or the splendour of Italian architecture – and every city is as individual and unique as the last.

Volterra

Sitting dramatically on a hilltop, the ancient city of Volterra is arguably one of the most impressive day trip destinations in the world. Hidden behind a cinnamon-brown wall of sienna stone, Volterra is – in literature at least – a city of vampires, a reputation you’ll appreciate as you wander with your partner through the eerily silent streets, bathed in the dark shadows of traditional Italian houses. From the grand Piazza dei Priori, encircled by medieval buildings, to the breath-taking Roman amphitheatre, Volterra reflects two thousand years of history yet is so small that it can be easily navigated on foot in a day. In truth, though, no guidebook can do this city justice or enable the tourist to soak up the remarkable atmosphere; a personal visit is absolutely essential.

Pisa

Famous for Torre pendente di Pisa, Pisa is an eternally popular university city. Arrive early and you can appreciate Earth’s most famous leaning tower without the hordes and take a more leisurely climb to the top for a view over the Piazza dei Miracoli and the surrounding buildings. Beyond the Square of Miracles, you’ll adore exploring the narrow streets with their smattering of traditional craft shops or the Piazza dei Cavaleiri, once the headquarters of the Knights of St Stephen. The city museums – the Opera del Duomo and Museo delle Sinopie – are also well worth a visit.

Florence

It was here that the Renaissance was born, but Florence is not a city only for die-hard art enthusiasts. With a fine collection of museums, churches and palaces housing some of the world’s most prized artistic works, art and architecture blend seamlessly. Among the must-see sites are the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, whose white-edged terracotta dome dominates the skyline, the library of San Lorenzo, with its exhibition of Michelangelo’s works, and the Ponte Vecchio which spans the River Arno. An afternoon appreciating the Giardini di Boboli is a great outdoor activity, with its statue of Andromeda and other fine sculptures.

So… when do you want to go?
These are only three of Tuscany’s finest cities and with others – Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca and Arezzo – to explore, you’ll be spoilt for choice on your visit to Italy’s most beautiful region.

The average high temperature in June is a pleasant 27C (81F), rising to 30C (86F) in July and August. However, July and August are peak times, so visit either in June if you can, or September, when the temperature high is still 27C (81F) and the queues are a little shorter.

Vienna: The city of music, cake, and so much more!

A couple of members of our team have just come back from a wonderful few days in Vienna. Here, they tell us all about it, and share the best places to go.

Without doubt, Vienna, the capital of Austria, is one of the most charming cities in Europe, if not the world.

Often described as the “City of Music”, it unsurprisingly has a wealth of entertainment for music lovers, and has been synonymous with classical music for centuries. MozartBeethoven and Strauss all lived here and in fact, the former homes of both Mozart and Beethoven are open to the public – both are highly recommend places to visit whilst in the city (although maybe not so much if you have trouble with stairs, because Beethoven’s apartment is a somewhat challenging climb up four flights of a spiral stone staircase!). However, your reward is to see one of Beethoven’s own pianos, complete with five pedals!

There are also several venues where you can watch a live classical music concert. If you are familiar with the world famous New Year’s Day concert from Vienna, it takes place at the Musikverein in central Vienna. The “Golden Hall” of the Musikverein is absolutely spectacular, with its ornate chandeliers and architecture, and many don’t consider a visit to Vienna complete without watching a concert performed here. The “Mozart in Historical Costumes” concert is especially good and even includes some light-hearted opera! Vienna also has a beautiful opera house where tickets to performances are readily available on most days, and in the evenings you can watch a live video feed from the opera house, free of charge, on a big screen outside.

Of course, Vienna has much more to offer than just music.

Lovers of paintings will appreciate the Museum of Art History, where you can see the works of famous artists such as Raphael and Rubens, or you can head on over the road to the Albertina to see original paintings by Monet and Picasso.

Architecturally, Vienna is stunning, reflecting its imperial past, and almost every road in the city centre has beautiful buildings for you to admire. The Ringstrasse, which is the main road encircling the city centre, is lined with numerous awe-inspiring palaces, and many of the city’s biggest hotels are also converted palaces! There are lots of beautiful parks too, and the old town doesn’t get too crowded, making this a relaxed city break. The temperature is pleasant to walk around, without being too hot: the average high through the summer is around 27C (81F).

At the centre of the city is Stephansdom, the beautiful St. Stephen’s Cathedral, from which you can grab a stunning view of the city from its steeple. This is a particularly good landmark to use as a reference point when searching for potential places to stay: because it is at the heart of Vienna, any hotel within the vicinity is in an ideal location – particularly if you wish to discover Vienna by foot (which is widely considered to be the best way, despite there being an excellent transportation system, including an easily accessible tram).

Foodies will be in their element in Vienna because the cuisine is exceptional. First, there’s the famous Weiner Schnitzel (head to Figlmüller if you want to experience the real deal – a massive schnitzel that overhangs the plate – but you’ll have to book ahead, because it understandably gets very busy). Then there’s the delicious and world-famous Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with apricot jam created in 1832 for Prince Wenzel von Metternich; if you want to experience the truly authentic version, then the Hotel Sacher is the only place to go!

If cake is something you like – and let’s face it who doesn’t! – then you will be in heaven once you see the selection of freshly prepared cakes on offer in the cafes all over the city.  There are so many to choose from, but if you like history then you can visit Café Centralwhere Sigmund Freud, Trotsky, Lenin used to visit, or Café Mozart which serves not only the most delicious cakes, but also a wonderful breakfast. The hot chocolate there is probably the best in the world, and the delicious brioche croissant will set you up nicely for the day.

The cafes in Vienna are coffee houses above all else though, so make sure you know what you want to drink before you enter one, as these specialist coffee connoisseurs will stare at you blankly if you simply order a coffee! The true traditional way to drink coffee in Vienna, and still the most popular way today, is the “Melange” (oddly pronounced in a French way). It is milky, and similar to a cappuccino. At the best coffee houses it is served in a quaint cup and saucer, usually with a small chocolate or nougat on the side and always with a glass of water as well, so you definitely won’t leave the café thirsty…unless you eat too much cake that is!

Car Hire Excess Waiver Insurance

Most car rental companies charge an excess if you have an accident. This means that you will be responsible for the first part of the claim.

The part you are responsible for is called the “excess” and it varies from one car hire company to another. However, it’s usually between £500 and £2,000 depending on the vehicle type you rent – but it can be substantially more on high-value cars.

You can protect yourself against these charges by purchasing an excess waiver, sometimes known as a Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW). Some companies will try to sell you a waiver when you book the hire car, often with hard-sell tactics, but it can cost over £20 a day! It’s better to buy your policy in the UK before you travel: you’ll save money and get more comprehensive cover too.

So if you’re hiring a car when you travel, go to CHEW Insurance and get great value cover today.

Six Tips to Stop Mosquitos Bothering You

With winter now firmly behind us, spring signals the start of the eagerly awaited holiday season. However, the warmer weather also brings with it a less desirable prospect – pesky mosquitos!

If you’ve ever been plagued by these annoying blood-sucking pests on holiday, you’ll know just how annoying the itching that follows a bite is, and how the ghastly blotchy lumps they leave all over newly sun-kissed arms and legs can really ruin the look of a beautiful suntan.

If you’re holidaying within Europe it’s very unlikely that the most dangerous consequence of mosquito bites, malaria, will affect you (although it’s not completely unheard of, it is extremely rare, and as such is dubbed “Airport Malaria” because the mosquitoes carrying it must have hitched a ride onboard an aircraft that was previously in an affected country). However, even if you are visiting a Malaria-free country, mosquito bites will still be something that you want to avoid.

With this in mind, below are some tips that may help keep them at bay and allow you to enjoy your holiday in peace:

1. Insect repellant spray
This is the most obvious and popular way to avoid getting bitten, probably because it is also considered to be the most effective. There are many good insect repellents available, some stronger than others and so not all are suitable for children, but what most have in common is that they contain DEET. Some people prefer not to use these strong repellents because they are concerned about the potential for skin irritation and also possible health risks associated with their use. No such risks have been conclusively proven, but some people prefer to err on the side of caution anyway and so for these people, there are now plenty of insect repellents marketed as “DEET free” available in High Street stores, meaning that there is a repellent for everyone. How effective a repellant is does tend to depend on how strong the active ingredient is though and how often it is applied, so if you are using a DEET free repellant, you may wish to take some other precautions as well.

2. Citronella
The essential oil citronella is widely regarded as an effective natural repellant of mosquitoes. It also has a very pleasant citrus scent, so is much more appealing to use than some commercial insect repellant which can have quite an unpleasant smell. You can buy citronella-based insect repellant sprays branded as “Natural Insect Repellent” and frequently sold wherever DEET repellants are sold. You can also purchase pure essential citronella oil from a health shop and make your own repellants. You’ll find various “recipes” online for this. Be careful though: don’t put undiluted oil onto your skin, don’t put anything on broken skin or irritated skin, and discontinue use if any sensitivity occurs. Another very effective way of applying citronella oil for lasting protection is by mixing a small amount with your usual body cream or after sun lotion. Citronella candles are also available and are excellent for lighting and placing on your table if you are eating or drinking outside in the evenings.

3. Long-sleeved tops and long bottoms
It may sound obvious, but if you choose clothing which ensures your arms and legs are covered when you are out in the evening, you will significantly reduce the amount of bites you receive. This does not eliminate mosquito bites altogether of course, because they have been known to bite through thin clothing and even bite areas of the body which you cannot cover, such as eyelids! However, the more flesh you can cover in the evening, the fewer bites you find yourself with, so it is definitely worth bearing this in mind when deciding what to pack for your evening wear.

Avoiding bites when you are out in the evening is one thing, but many bites occur when you are in your hotel room. So, in order to reduce the number of bites you fall victim to whilst sleeping, the following tips may help:

4. Keep the bathroom door closed
Mosquitoes absolutely love humid conditions and are therefore find bathrooms extremely attractive. Keeping the bathroom window closed will help a great deal, but is not always practical if there is a lot of steam. You can however still avoid the mosquitoes that flock to your bathroom from biting you while you sleep by always remembering to close the bathroom door behind you and thus confining them to the bathroom only.

5. Air-conditioning
In some rooms, especially apartments and studios and a lot of budget hotels, air-conditioning is only available at extra cost. Some people do not like to pay a supplement for it and so think that they’ll just sleep with their balcony door open instead. Not only is this an inefficient way of keeping cool in hot climates, not to mention a security risk if you are on a lower floor, but it is also a recipe for disaster if mosquitoes are about as they will flock to you like a moth to a flame! Pay the extra for air-conditioning: you’ll not only be more comfortable because you’ll be cool at night, but it will also allow you to keep the door closed and so keep the mosquitoes out – a supplement worth paying for this reason alone!

6. Fans
Air-conditioning is obviously the best way to keep cool, but not all hotels/apartments have it and so a fan is not only a useful appliance to help keep you cool at night, but it is also excellent for keeping mosquitoes off of you while you sleep. They truly hate fans as they are literally blown away by them, thus making it impossible for them to land on you! Some hotels have fans available for hire, but if not and you are particularly prone to mosquito bites, you can either buy a cheap one while abroad, or pack a small one and take it with you if space permits. Plug it in next to the bed before going to sleep and as long as you can handle the noise, it will stop mosquitoes from getting anywhere near you.

Use one or more of these tips and have a great mosquito-free holiday!

Inspiration: Take a holiday in the sun in Zante

You may never have been to Zante, also known as Zakynthos, but if you’ve ever flicked through a European holiday brochure you have almost certainly seen a photograph of this island, the most southerly of the Greek Ionian islands.

Smugglers Cove is what the island of Zante is most famous for, and it’s perhaps not difficult to understand why. Its beautiful azure blue water against its pale sand makes this beautiful cove picturesque enough, but it has an added and very unique feature in the form of a shipwreck!

Back in 1980, a ship smuggling cigarettes was being pursued by the Greek Navy when it hit rocks in bad weather, and the remains of the resulting shipwreck are still on the beach it washed up on several decades later.

Only accessible by boat, Smugglers Cove is a must-see sight when visiting Zante and so organised trips are widely available. There are no shops or facilities in this small cove though, so visitors must remember to bring (and take back with them!) anything which they may need while there, such as drinks and parasols for shelter from the strong Greek sunshine.

Temperatures can be quite warm and sunny, reaching 27-30C (80–86F) between June and September, so you’ll definitely need your sunscreen!

Something else which Zante is famous for is its Loggerhead turtles, of the species “Caretta Caretta”. These endangered turtles choose the beaches of Zante as their nesting ground year after year and so some beaches around the bay of Lagana are often guarded between the months of June until October and access may be either totally prohibited or subject to restrictions such as where you can sunbathe.

There is still plenty of accessible beach for sun-worshippers though, so these localised restrictions are a small price to pay for the on-going preservation of these amazing animals and the possibility of seeing one if you are lucky, when out on a “Turtle Spotting” boat trip, or even when relatively close to the shore on your own pedalo!

These two unique and fascinating attractions aside, the glorious beaches of Zante, its clear waters, fabulous Greek cuisine and varied nightlife (which ranges from quiet tavernas to bustling nightclubs for the younger generation) make it an ideal summer holiday destination.

The only downside is the airport! Extremely small and under-developed it does not make for the most relaxing start or end to a holiday, but if you can tolerate that then you really will be rewarded with a fantastic holiday!

Save 10% when you buy Car Hire Excess Waiver insurance

Most car rental companies charge an excess if you have an accident. This means that you will be responsible for the first part of the claim.

The part you are responsible for is called the “excess” and it varies from one car hire company to another. However, it’s usually between £500 and £2,000 depending on the vehicle type you rent – but it can be substantially more on high-value cars.

You can protect yourself against these charges by purchasing an excess waiver, sometimes known as a Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW). Some companies will try to sell you a waiver when you book the hire car, often with hard-sell tactics, but it can cost over £20 a day! It’s better to buy your policy in the UK before you travel: you’ll save money and get more comprehensive cover too.

So if you’re hiring a car when you travel, go to CHEW Insurance and use discount codeAPR15 for a 10% discount.

Reduce the Risk of Lost or Stolen Luggage

Every time we travel and are separated from our baggage, we run the risk of it either being lost or stolen. The ever-increasing numbers of passengers which airlines and airports are serving these days makes baggage handling a constant challenge for them. Although the risks of lost bags cannot be entirely eliminated, there are some measures you can take to help reduce the risk of this nightmare affecting you.

1. Avoid checking in your bags – If you can avoid having to check a bag and only take carry-on luggage (for example, if you are only going away for a long weekend) then this is an obvious way to keep tabs on your belongings. Quite often, with some prudent packing and a decent carry-on case, this can be an excellent way of not only preventing having to be separated from your luggage, but also saving you some money (given that many airlines charge extra for checked hold baggage). It will also save you time, because you won’t have to queue at the baggage carousel.

2. Clear labelling – The airline will attach its own label to your case for identification purposes, but it still doesn’t hurt to also attach your own label, with details of your name and contact information. Some passengers are reluctant to have their personal information visible on their bags, as they do not wish to run the risk of their now obviously empty home address being advertised to a would-be burglar – but this risk can be avoided by simply including only a name and contact telephone number, rather than your full address. Don’t forget to include your country code (+44) in the phone number, and to write “UK” on the label.

3. Additional identification inside – For additional identification purposes, a sheet of paper detailing your name and contact information can be placed inside the suitcase, to aid with identification should the case get lost and its label has become detached. If you wish, you can tape it to the inside lid of the case to stop it getting lost or flapping around.

4. Easily identifiable – One of the main causes of lost/stolen luggage is misidentification. With many suitcases looking so alike, it is very easy for a passenger to remove the wrong suitcase from the carousel and not notice until they get home! You can reduce this risk by giving your luggage some form of unique identifier. This can be in the form of either a piece of coloured ribbon, a sticker, or your initials, for example. Find a way to make your bag distinctive and it is less likely to get picked up by another traveller by mistake.

5. Not too flash – Your top-of-the-range designer suitcase may be too much of a temptation to resist for some would-be thieves, so try not to check-in obviously expensive luggage as it is at risk of being stolen, regardless of how worthless the actual contents inside may be!

Protect yourself with good insurance:
Remember though that the risks of a lost suitcase can never be eliminated entirely, so if it is irreplaceable and you cannot afford to lose it, then don’t pack it!

EHICPlus travel insurance includes cover for a “Total limit for baggage including Valuables” of £1,500 – see the Policy Summary for details.

Malta: Still warm! A good time to visit!

If you are looking for somewhere to take a last-minute Mediterranean beach holiday before the winter sets in, it can often be tricky to find somewhere warm enough in Europe this late in the season. Why not consider Malta?

Climate
Malta is located far enough south (at the base of Sicily) that it is parallel with north Africa, and fortunately enjoys pleasant weather well into the autumn, with average temperatures in October still exceeding 20 degrees Celsius. This is a actually an excellent time of year to explore the country’s numerous in-land sights without the oppressive heat of the high-season sun.

Architecture
Once part of the British Empire, Malta’s history can be traced back to the fourth century BC. In fact, there are an abundance of ancient grand churches and stunning temples to explore, with the oldest, the megalithic temple of Hagar Qim, thought to have been built as early as 3600BC!

The capital, Valetta (the smallest capital in the European Union) was actually granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980, which considering its wealth of preserved 16th century architecture is no surprise. A main focal point, magnificent both inside and out, is the St John’s Co-Cathedral built in the 1570s. Be sure to also visit the National Museum of Archaeology for a fascinating insight into Malta’s abundant history.

Shops
Valetta is also home to a labyrinth of limestone walled streets, which host a vast array of quaint little shops where you can purchase unique gifts and even watch some being made, for example, the art of glass-blowing can often be observed here and the finished articles purchased.

Restaurants
Just north of Valetta, Sliema and St Julian’s are the main tourist resorts and are where the majority of the hotels and restaurants and located. Malta is not considered a party island – which is what often makes it an attractive choice for more mature travellers – but St Julian’s does have a reasonable amount of entertainment in the evenings for those seeking it.

Beaches
For sun-worshippers the Grand Harbour is not to be missed, and the glorious crystal clear waters – some of the bluest and cleanest in the Mediterranean, are very inviting. It should be noted though that Malta has predominantly rocky beaches as opposed to sandy ones. However, Golden Bay has a nice sandy beach and was in fact a film location for the film “Troy”.

Summary
Wherever you stay, the island is small enough (just over 122 sq metres) that you are never far away from something of interest. So, whether it is culture and history you are seeking, or sun and sea, Malta will definitely tick all your boxes and the Maltese people, being especially friendly towards the Brits, are sure to make you feel most welcome.

Munich: Surf in the City

Yes, you read the headline right, and no, it has nothing to do with Carrie Bradshaw! In Munich, you really can watch people surfing in the city and it is strangely captivating, as the crowds of tourists who visit the “Englicher Garten” (“English Garden”) in order to watch the surfers strutting their stuff every day demonstrates. The water flowing under a bridge hits a stone step around two feet high and creates “waves” from the rapids – there’s no shortage of locals with wetsuits jumping onto a surfboard and pulling tricks for the amused onlookers.

This is not only the largest park in Munich, but it is one of the largest city parks in Europe. It has excellent restaurants too – we had a first class meal at “Seehaus im Englischen Garten”, presented by the noted high-quality German restaurant group Kuffler.

Of course, there is much more to Munich than the surfers, or indeed the tranquil beauty of its public parks and well-tended open spaces and gardens – of which there are certainly plenty for you to explore!

Architecture
Munich has lots to offer as a city-break destination, regardless of how long you are visiting for. It’s a city brimming with beautiful historical architecture and landmarks, with the spectacular neo-gothic “Neues Rathaus” (New Town Hall) in the Marienplatz central square being a particular highlight of ours, with its coal-blackened façade and well-sculptured gargoyles. Munich escaped utter destruction during World War 2, and many attractive old buildings still remain to be admired.

Food and Drink
There is also no shortage of superb cafes and restaurants, not to mention the famous beer halls! The Hofbrauhaus is the most famous of them, but in any that you visit you can be confident of a traditional Bavarian experience! Imagine the iconic image of a lady dressed in traditional clothing (called a Dirndl), with a large tankard of beer in each hand, and the picture you conjure up is exactly what you’ll get! Of course, you can also get Bratwurst, the classic German sausage, and a good Schnitzel (flattened pork or veal, coated in breadcrumbs). Germany also has many regional sausages: Munich is in the Bavaria region, where the speciality isWeisswurst (“white sausage”, made from veal and pork). A tip from our German friends: you don’t eat the skin of a Weisswurst sausage, you suck the meat out of it! Large Pretzels are traditional in bavaria too.

BMW World and Olympic Park
Slightly to the north of the city (but actually very easily accessible thanks to Munich’s excellent tram and train links) you will find attractions such BMW Welt (BMW World), which is a great day out for car enthusiasts. Housed within a futuristic glass and steel building, there is not only a gigantic showroom of powerful cars and bikes for you to enjoy, but there is also a BMW museum adjacent to it where you can quite literally spend almost a whole day exploring the history of BMW. There is currently a Rolls Royce exhibition on the top floor (BMW own Rolls Royce), with lots of these wonderful historic and modern cars, so don’t miss that! If you are really lucky, you may even catch a live motorcycle stunt performancetoo – if you want to see a motorcycle ridden up and down two giant staircases inside a building, this is your chance!

The Olympiapark is next to BMW World and also hosts a multitude of attractions, depending on which day you visit. Built for the 1972 Olympic Summer Games, it also houses a public swimming pool and ice rink for those feeling a little energetic! A particular highlight is the views you can enjoy from here: on a clear day you get a magnificent view of the city of Munich, set against a backdrop of the Alps.

Experience
If you fancy giving Munich a try – and you really should do – visiting in autumn you can expect temperatures in the mid teens, with lows of around 10 degrees Celsius and moderate rainfall. You have just missed the Oktoberfest beer festival, for which Munich is famous. However, that’s no bad thing – German people have told us that you can have the same authentic Bavarian experience in the centre of Munich without the crowds or the inflated prices of the festival. So go and explore: it’s well worth a trip.