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Spring is the perfect season to visit Florence, a Renaissance city in the heart of Tuscany. A weekend here puts you at the centre of some of Italy’s best museums, beautiful cathedrals and churches, interesting streets and squares with elegant buildings and shops and excellent restaurants. We’ve put together our top 10 Florence sights and experiences to get you in the mood.

1. Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio

Florence’s most famous square is Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the historic center and a free open-air sculpture exhibit. The Loggia della Signoria holds some important statues including a copy of Michelangelo’s David. The piazza has been Florence’s political center since the middle ages and Florence’s town hall, the medieval Palazzo Vecchio, still sits on the square.

2. Il Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

Florence’s most popular site is its Duomo (cathedral), the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore. The huge Gothic duomo was begun in 1296, consecrated in 1436, and holds 20,000 people. Its exterior, made of green, pink, and white marble, has several elaborate doors and interesting statues. Inside, Brunelleschi’s Dome is a masterpiece of construction. Here’s what to see inside the duomo.

3. Campanile – Bell Tower

The Campanile, bell tower, is in Piazza del Duomo. The first story was designed by Giotto and it is commonly called Giotto’s Campanile. Buy a ticket and climb the 414 stairs (no lift) for great views of the Cathedral and its dome and the city of Florence and surroundings.

4. Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), built in 1345, was Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River and is the only surviving bridge from Florence’s medieval days (others were destroyed in World War II). The Ponte Vecchio is still lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry. From the bridge, you’ll have a great view along the Arno River and beyond.

5. Galleria degli Uffizi

The Galleria degli Uffizi holds the world’s most important collection of Renaissance art but it’s also Italy’s most crowded museum so it’s a good idea to buy tickets ahead to avoid long ticket lines (use the link above for booking information or buy tickets from Select Italy). The Uffizi holds thousands of paintings from medieval to modern times and many antique sculptures, illuminations, and tapestries. Artists whose works you’ll see include Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael.

6. Galleria dell’ Academia

Galleria dell’ Academia holds important paintings and sculptures from the 13th-16th centuries. Michelangelo’s David, probably the most famous sculpture in the world, is in the Galleria dell’ Academia as well as other sculptures by Michelangelo. You’ll also find an interesting collection of musical instruments, begun by the Medici family.

7. Boboli Garden and Pitti Palace

Cross the Ponte Vecchio to the Giardino di Boboli, a huge park on a hillside in the middle of Florence behind the Pitti Palace. Here you’ll find beautiful gardens and fountains and a great view of Florence. The Pitti Palace, Florence’s largest palazzo, was once the seat of the Medici family. You can visit 8 different galleries, including art, costumes, jewelry, and apartments.

8. Santa Croce

Santa Croce, in Piazza Santa Croce, is the largest Franciscan church in Italy and holds the tombs of several important Florentines including Michelangelo and Dante. The vast interior contains some exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes. One of Brunelleschi’s most important works, the Cappella dei Pazzi, is in Santa Croce.

9. The Baptistery

The Baptistery of John the Baptist, from the 11th century, is one of Florence’s oldest buildings. Its exterior is made of green and white marble and has three sets of amazing bronze doors (reproductions – the originals are in the Duomo Museum, also worth a visit). Inside, you can see some mosaics and a marble pavement of the zodiac.

10. Stay – JK Place

In the heart of downtown Florence, in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, just a few steps from the Renaissance church bearing the same name, the very special JK Place is hidden away. This elegant 5* boutique combines understated luxury with the intimatcy of a real house and attentive but never invasive service. Your home from home in Florence.
Find out more at VisitFlorence.com

As anybody who has not been skiing since childhood will tell you, breaking through the psychological barriers that have formed can be just as tough as mastering the physical moves required to ski.

It probably doesn’t help that most adult skiers start their ski career on a package holiday with a group lesson. The whole experience can be frustrating, terrifying and addictive in equal measure but if the bug has bitten, making the leap from snow ploughing beginner to graceful expert who can ski the whole mountain can be a long hard road.

Lots of intermediate skiers progress quite quickly from blue to red slopes and then find themselves reaching a plateau. Most people turn to lessons and while there are some very talented instructors working in all major ski resorts, the difference in knowledge and approach can make for some mixed messages which can lead to frustration, lack of confidence and not getting any better at skiing!

Like most early intermediate skiers I have had my good days and my bad days on the snow and it’s the glimpse of how great skiing can be on the good days that keeps you coming back for more. Much as I love it though, facing into another ski season of trial and error and good days and bad days and hit and miss instructors, I finally came to a decision. This would be the year I either cracked skiing or gave it up.

We had heard a lot about The Warren Smith Ski Academy from friends and colleagues over the past year and how Warren’s unique approach to teaching is helping people to smash through psychological barriers and ski like they’ve always dreamed of. With nothing to lose and years of great skiing to gain we booked a week long coaching camp in the beautiful Cervinia, Italy at the end of November.

Despite the high praise I’d heard and the excellent testimonial I read online, I will admit, I was still a little sceptical that I could look forward to the type of progress talked about in just one week. After all, it had taken me 5 years to get to the level I was at so it seemed unlikely that in 5 days I would make such a leap. But with my ultimatum in mind, I was certainly ready to give it a try.

A talented freerider and coach Warren’s technique focuses not just on traditional methods of coaching but adds two extra layers on top – ski biomechanics and ski physiology – which Warren says is the only way to ensure 100% results. This very well designed program has been developed to unlock all your classic ski problems and open the door to performance and efficient skiing.

The Academy work with skiers of all levels from intermediate to expert and instructor training (but not beginners) and you have a chance to choose your level when you make your booking. Even this process is simplified with videos demonstrating each level available to watch on the site. Beware though – don’t try to exaggerate your level because it won’t last long. After warm up on the first morning the entire group skis with their selected group and instructor and following this, the final decision is made on your level and which group you’re going to be spending the week with.

We meet our group for the week along with Becky our coach and work begins. Warren’s initial inspiration for the course came about when he was working in ski schools in Austria. Working with up to 160 clients per season, he realised that he was seeing the same 4 or 5 issues with lots of people which were holding them back from being the best skiers they could be. He describes these issues as “physiological” or biomechanical” problems that were “blocking” his clients from making progress so he set about building a ski course from the ground up that would address these problems alongside teaching using the very latest techniques.

We get an insight into the biomechanics part straight away when Becky starts helping us to focus on our stance. Just like driving, bad habits can form in your skiing, like having your feet too wide apart or leaning back in to what your brain is telling you is a safe position. Getting your stance right is a basic and with a bit of effort and concentration on getting into the right position, we see immediate improvements.

From the basic exercise of getting your stance right the rest of the week we work from the feet up on techniques and exercises to help us “feel” the right position to ski in. Everything is designed to build skill and confidence and enable you to ski the whole mountain from steeps to bumps and off piste.

One of the highlights of the week are the 2 video analysis nights held in the team hotel. If you’ve never seen yourself skiing on camera before this is an extremely instructive exercise and it really helps to have your coach point out exactly where the problems are coming from along with feedback from all the other instructors. The improvements the following morning are noticeable.

I finished the week feeling like I’d made progress and counting the days to my next adventure on the snow. My next opportunity to ski came over a month later and I took my preparations seriously watching through the videos prepared for us by The Warren Smith Academy, thinking about my stance and going over the key points that had worked for me over the week long course. Would this be a permanent change or just an extended good ski day that would see me fall back in to bad habits and low confidence?

After my first couple of runs I had my answer. It works and I’m now a better skier than I was 2 months ago. By following the techniques from the course I was finally able to consistently enjoy my skiing and even had friends who I haven’t skied with for over a year ask me how I’d improved so much!

I think my favourite tip from the course, aside from the techniques, is something our coach Becky said to us towards the end of the week. No matter what level you ski at, skiing is all about tiny corrections. If you feel your stance or any other elements are wrong, correct them. It might sound like pretty simple advice but it’s impossible to follow if you haven’t learnt the correct technique.

If you’re serious about taking your skiing to the next level The Warren Smith Academy site should be your first post of call. All of the instructors are talented skiers in their own right and the energy and enthusiasm they have for making your skiing better is very impressive.

Another point that must be made is the value for money with options available from around €500. Courses run most of the year (glacier skiing in summer) in Verbier, Cervinia and destinations as far flung as Japan for a specialised powder camp. The rates are incredible when you consider that Warren can charge as much as €600 per hour for a private lesson.

Check out the course available here. We’re already planning our next one!

Acres of olive groves, sun bleached landscapes, Italy’s longest coastline dotted with beautiful villages and beaches. Small harbours where traditional painted wooden boats can be seen coming home every day with their rainbow-tinted catch of prawns, squid, octopus, crab and fish. Festas and Fieras, processions and pageants, carnivals and celebrations abound in every village as each town and celebrates a deication its very own special Saint and Patrons day. Bands and musicians playing in the Piazza entice locals into traditional dances, young and old alike cavort in the exuberance of the Pizzica and the famous Tarantella with swirling skirts and clapping hands.

This is Puglia, Italy’s heel, a unique part of the country where two seas meet – the Adriatic to the east and the Ionian to the south.

The fact that the entire region looks out to sea explains the many varied layers of history. Everyone has invaded including the Normans, the Spanish, the Turks, the Swabians and the Greeks. Each culture and civilization has left its own impact forming threads of the rich tapestry that makes up Puglia and its inhabitants today. Their architecture, cuisine and customs intertwine in this beautiful and exotic destination. Walled towns and villages cling to hilltops, built there originally for protection and security.

Fresh fish, melons, figs and locally produced olive oils and wines all make up the renowned “La Tavola Pugliese” – oftentimes claimed to be the best cuisine in all of Italy and of which the Pugliese are so justifiably proud. The region produces almost all of Europe’s pasta and 70 % of Italy’s olive oil so food is an important industry here too.

Despite all this unique character and charm, alongside some of the best beaches to be found in Italy, Puglia remains little known to outsiders. Italians flock here in the summer and in lots of small towns it is quite rare to hear English spoken. The rest of Italy seems to love this laidback playground of blue sea, golden sands and olive groves – but they keep it to themselves!

Richard & Noirin Bates are an Irish couple who first experienced Italy in 2001. Their 12 year old son did a school project on the San Marino region and he was so taken with it, he persuaded his parents to bring him there that summer on holidays. They fell in love with the country and visted many different areas before finally making the move in 2009 to lease their business in Ireland, sell the family home and create a new life in Puglia.

They have been busy since then and now offer a choice of four beautiful villas to rent in the area. All of the villas are renovated and decorated to a very high standard give guests the chance to experience luxury Italian living close to villages and all within walking distance of beaches. One of the extra nice touches you get when you stay here is a welcome basket from Richard & Noirin with some essentials and local delicacies to get you started on the path to food heaven!

Take a look at the four beautiful properties they have on offer below or vist www.placeinpuglia.com to explore the area further, get travel information or get in touch.

Villa Nicola

Villa Nicola is a two bedroom detached Villa  (sleeping 4 – 6), in the beautiful seaside village of Lendinuso on the shores of the Adriatic sea. Completely restructured and renovated with great care and attention to detail this two bedroom villa features a private pool, al fresco dining area under gazebo, roof terrace with panoramic views of the village and seas, a fully equipped kitchen with everything you need to make cooking at home a pleasure, a flat screen TV and DVD library and a 350 metre walk to the nearest beach.

Find out more about Villa Nicola here.

Villa Sun Beach

Located just 400 metres from the sandy cove in Zona Canuta and its uncommercialised beach Villa Sun Beach is perfect for  both relaxing and exploring the Puglia region.Outside, the villa boasts a beautiful, newly-built swimming pool with Roman style steps and sparkling crystal clear water.An extensive mature orchard contains many types of fruit trees and there is a choice of outdoor garden areas.Inside the Villa is tastefully furnished with cream leather sofas and rocking chairs in the living room, a Leccese stone fireplace, three bedrooms (two double) and a modern fitted kitchen equipped to the highest standard.

Find out more about Villa Sun Beach here.

Villa Gallese

Villa Gallese is a beautiful totally modernised and re-constructed Villa set in a walled private courtyard. Inside the double entrance gate steps lead up to the roof terrace,  ideal for private sunbathing and offers views over the village of Lendinuso towards the sea and the courtyard. A newly built 9 metre swimming pool with Roman complete with sun loungers and a full set of garden leisure and dining furniture will make it to leave this pretty place to sample the sights and attractions outside the gates. The owners have spared no expense inside to achieve a level of finish that makes relaxation come natuarally. The villa has air conditioning, all new furniture, two double bedrooms and a twin single bedroom, a huge living area, dining area, a rebuilt bathroom and a newly fitted kitchen with the latest kitchen utensils,  crockery and tableware.

Find out more about Villa Gallese here.

Villa Azzura

Situated in the seaside village of Torre san Gennaro this two  bedroom Villa has been totally renovated and modernised during 2011 and available to rent sine spring 2012. Secluded from the quiet laneway by traditional solid walls in the attractive local sandstone, entrance is through timber gates into a tiled parking area adjacent to the walled in front garden.
Newly landscaped, the front garden is adorned with numerous palm trees and flowering shrubs in graveled beds, and boasts newly planted Lemon and Kumquat trees, and a mature, red-fruited sweet pear tree standing over a cascading herb feature offering a range of fresh flavourings for your cooking. The poolside sunbathing area is furnished with solid wooden loungers and set with flowering shrubs and planters, providing the perfect temptation to laze around and soak up the sun, before slipping into the crystal clear pool waters to cool off. Inside, Villa Azzurra is totally renovated, with tasteful furniture and fittings of high quality and a brand new wooden fully fitted kitchen that any qourmet would enjoy. Both bedrooms overlook the front garden and have adjustable window shutters and ceiling fans.

Find out more about Villa Azzura here.

www.placeinpuglia.com

 

Dominican Republic

7 nights all inclusive at the NOW Larimar in Punta Cana from just €579 per person + €510 tax.

Prices are based on 2 adults sharing in a Deluxe Tropical View room travelling between now and June 30th. Flights are with Air France via Paris.

Find out more and book www.classicresorts.ie

 

Miami & Barbados

Enjoy some of the best shopping and nightlife in the world with 3 nights in Miami and top it off with a 7 night stay in Barbados with it’s beautiful golden beaches.

Offer includes 3 nights at the 3* Ocean Five Hotel in Miami, 7 nights at the 4* Bougainvillea Beach Resort in Barbados including flights and transfers from €1,729 per person sharing.

Find out more and book www.trailfinders.ie

 

Amsterdam

Enjoy a 2 night stay in Amsterdam from June 12th – 14th from just €243 per person.

Price includes return flights from Dublin and 2 nights B&B at the Trianon Hotel. Subject to availability at time of booking.

 

Find out more and book www.arrowtours.ie

 

San Francisco

Summer in San Francisco from only €999 per person sharing!

Offer includes 5 nights at the Renoir Hotel in the city and return flights from Dublin. Price is based on 4 sharing. Travel date August 31st.

 

Find out more and book www.touramerica.ie

 

Italy

A suberb 3 centre Italian holiday taking you from Roman ruins to a floating city from €859 per person including taxes, flights and all transfers.

Offer includes 9 nights in Rome staying at the Hotel Luce in the centre of Rome, 3 nights in Florence at the 4* Fenice Palace and 3 nights in Venice at the 4* Hotel Bonvecchiati. All accommodations are on a B&B basis.

Find out more and book www.travelmood.ie

 

South Africa

12 nights in South Africa taking in Cape Town, the Garden Route and Safari  from €1,350 + €490 tax per person.

Offer includes 4 nights at the Southern Sun Waterfront Hotel in Cape Town, 5 nights 4* accommodation along the Garden Route, 3 nights at the Kariega Private Game Reserve, 9 days car hire plus return flights.

Find out more and book www.travelfocus.ie

 

Cruise

An 8 day, 7 night Mediterranean cruise aboard the MSC Splendida from just €529 per person.

Ports of call include Italy, Sicily, Malta, Tunisia and Spain.

Find out more and book www.topflight.ie

 

Orlando

Very special family holiday deal to Orlando from just €479 per person based on 2 adults and 2 children.

Price includes return flights and 7 nights accommodation at the International Drive Hotel.

Find out more and book www.touramerica.ie