Sokobanja: fresh, lush and healing

While we’re still staying Aleksinac had the opportunity to visit the spa town, Sokobanja. This is one of Serbia’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s located in the southeast of the country, between the Ozren and Rtanj mountains and is 400 m above sea-level.

Sokobanja has been famous for the therapeutic qualities of its thermal springs since Ancient Roman times. People travel to bath in the thermal mineral springs (28-45.5°C) and inhalation the fresh air, which has a high concentration of oxygen, ozone and negative ions and no pollution. There are even specialised hospitals that treat a variety of conditions, such as bronchial asthma and chronic hepatitis.

Sokobanja is such a beautiful and tranquil place. I found this amazing video which illustrates what a truly special place it is:  Sokobanja Green Heart of Serbia (produced by Dusan Stojancevic).

 

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Niš: ancient city with a youthful vibe

While we were in the south of Serbia we visited the city of Niš a couple of times. It is the closest big city to Aleksinac (Marco’s hometown) and his place of birth. It is also the third largest city in Serbia, one of the oldest Balkan city and was considered a doorway to the west and eat in ancient times. Despite its ancient roots, this city has a youthful vibe. With bustling alleyways, live music, pop up markets and plenty of places to get good food and drinks, it definitely the place where you can have some fun.

We drove to Niš from Aleksinac, which only took 30 minutes, so we didn’t need to book a hotel. We visited a couple of times but unfortunately both times we didn’t have that long so we didn’t get to do all the sites. We did do a bit of shopping, visit the Fortress and Holy Trinity Cathedral and have a couple of great traditional Serbian meals.

 

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Weekend roundup of delicious eats

Over the past weekend and mid-week, we have been eating out quite a bit so I thought I’d share some of the photos and details of these delicious eats. These include some restaurants and cafes on the Gold Coast and in my hometown of Brisbane.

This roundup started from last weekend when we took a little break to the Gold Coast.  We stayed in two family hotels, at Sanctuary Cove and Benowa. We don’t normally do hotel crawls, but it was great fun to do. We got to experience two different places and give my toddler new surroundings to explore.

 

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Aleksinac: Our Serbian hometown

So last time I left you with my European trip we were in Italy. Next, we made our way to Serbia to visit Marco’s family. We spent a week in their hometown of Aleksinac and did some day trips to Niš and Sokobanja and a couple of days in Belgrade.

This is the second time I’ve been to Serbia and visited Aleksinac. The best part of this trip was seeing Marco’s family and introducing Octavia to her little cousins. Since I don’t speak Serbian I didn’t have many people to talk to. Luckily one of Marco’s aunts was an English professor. Octavia understands Serbian and she didn’t let it stop her having fun with everyone.

So you may be wonder where is Aleksinac? It is a town and municipality, which is in the Nišava District of the southern Serbia. It is believed that people have inhabited this area since the Neolithic age and most of the settlements are of the Vinča cultural group. Like much of Serbia, Aleksinac has been under the rule of the Romans, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. There are many archaeological sites in the area and nearby, which have largely been left untouched. So if you enjoy hiking this region has many mountains and old castles to discover.

To get to Aleksinac we first had to fly Belgrade, where we were greeted Marco’s father. From there it took a couple of hours to drive to the small town of Aleksinac. On the way back we took a bus, which took a little longer but was easy enough.

Aleksinac town centre isn’t really a tourist hot spot. I think there is only one hotel on the edge of town. However, there are nice places to stay at spa towns like Sokobanja or Ribarska banja or in the larger city of Niš. I did enjoy visiting Aleksinac to get a feel for every day of small town living. However, it does get boring in the centre of town. I found myself just wanting to get out of town to see some of the natural beauty of nearby sites and villages.


 

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Walking Giro del Sole

After visiting Santa Caterina del Sasso, my cousin took us to another beautiful site north of Luino. Giro del Sole can be found in the little town of Agra, Varese. It is only a 20-minute drive north from Luino (see map).

Giro del Sole translate to ‘sunshine’. It is the walking trail around the Ronchetti hills, which takes you up to panoramic lookouts. There are two balconies in which you can observe panoramic views of Lago Maggiore. This trail is quite an easy short walk, as it is very low altitude. The path is wide enough to Mountainbike and along the way you can find areas to practise gymnastics. There is a more challenging walking trail in this area, called Giro della Luna, which takes you around the Bedorè hill.

On our way through the forest, we came across many Italian families and older couples leisurely walking together. We only went up to the first lookout and the view was spectacular. From here you can see the Lago Maggiore, as it divides Lombardia from Piemonte and Italy from Switzerland.

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Santa Caterina del Sasso

While visiting with my family in Luino, we visited a beautiful heritage site not too far away. Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso is an old Roman Catholic monastery perched on the shore of Lago Maggiore, facing the Gulf of Borromean Islands. It is situated in the municipality of Leggiuno in Varese, Lombardia (see map).  The monastery can be reached a few ways. We took the long winding stairway by foot. However, you can also take an elevator down or by ferry across the Lago Maggiore.

This monastery was founded by a wealthy merchant, Alberto Besozzi in 1170. The story goes that after his boat capsized in a storm he prayed to St Catherine to be saved. He declared that if he was saved he would give all his money to the poor and retire a hermit. After surviving the storm he did, in fact, live in a cave as a hermit. However, when a plague struck in 1195, the local people asked for his help. He agreed to help them in return for their help in building a votive chapel to St Catherine. After his death in 1205, Besozzi was buried near the chapel and people would come there to pray for cures to ailments.

The site was later documented as a hermitage 1301 after people began coming to live there as hermits. By the 1700’s the hermitage went into decline, due to Enlightenment reforms in Lombardia. The foundations of the site also became weak over time. It wasn’t until 1914 that the Italian government deemed it a national monument. However, after major restoration works in the 1970’s  it was not open to the public until 1986.

The site consists of three buildings, the southern convent, the small convent and the main church. This church dates back to the end of the 16th century and is the artistic and spiritual heart of the Hermitage. On the altar-piece, there are scenes of St Catherine with the Virgin and child and St Nicholas with Blessed Alberto Besozzi. Besozzi body is also on display in a glass coffin.

If you are in the area, this site is worth the trip. It is truly a beautiful and spiritual place. It can be quite crowded though, as it is a tourist hotspot. You can visit it alone or do a guided tour, which would give great insight into its history. For more information on directions and opening times, see the official website.

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Wine and Olive Press
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Fresco’s outside on balcony

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Main Church
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Main church
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Alberto Besozzi, Main church
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The Chapter Room (la Sala Capitolare)
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The Chapter Room (la Sala Capitolare)
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The Chapter Room (la Sala Capitolare)
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The Chapter Room (la Sala Capitolare)

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Luino: a little piece of paradise

Luino is a charming northern Italian lake town with an amazing backdrop of blue skies and mountains. Luckily for me, the majority of my family live here. I have visited Luino a few times now and I never tire of it. It’s a very tranquil place and being able to live like an Italian rather than a tourist is also a bonus. Family dinners, leisurely walks and eating with the locals, made my experience so much more authentic.

Luino is in the province of Varese, which is situated on the Lago Maggiore and the Swiss-Italian border. The lake is the second largest in Italy and is separates Luino from the region of Piemonte. The town itself is quite hilly but the lakefront is flat. The town is well-known for its Mercato di Luino (Wednesday market), which attracts Italians, Swiss, Germans and Dutch.

Luino has become quite a popular tourist destination. I have noticed a lot of changes on the lakefront and many new restaurants. I tried a few while I was here and all were very good (see below). Luino is also very close to the border of Switzerland. We usually drive over the border for shopping trips, chocolates and to visit nearby cities. While we here this time we also visited Lugano and Bellinzona and in Switzerland and Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso and Giro del sole in Italy. I will share some photos and information in upcoming posts.


 

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Lugano: Swiss-Italian perfection

When I last left you on our European travel adventure we were making our way up to see our family in Luino, Italy. On the way, we made two stops, Como and beautiful Lugano. I have been to Lugano a few times in the past. It is in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland and a very short drive from the Italian border. In fact, most of my Italian family actually work in Switzerland. They are very fortunate to live so close to Switzerland for work opportunities and job security.

The lifestyle in Switzerland is still very different to Italy, despite the common language. The maintenance of the cities and towns is like night and day compared most of Italy. If you get a chance I really recommend stopping in Lugano  The drive is about an hour and a half from Milano. You can also get a highspeed train from Milan. There is a more direct route then we took, but driving through Como roughly takes the same amount of time and is more scenic.


 

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Como: panoramic lake views and splendid villas

After staying Milano it was time to go further north to visit my family. On the way, we stopped at the north Italian town of Como. This idyllic town sits on Lake Como and the Swiss-Italian border. The amazing panoramic views of mountains and the lake is a little piece of paradise and is known for its’ rich and famous residents.

I’ve always wanted to visit Como, but for some reason or another never got here while I was living in Milano. Luckily we were able to drive to Como and up through Switzerland to visit my family in Luino, Italy. This took roughly the same amount of time as it would be to drive directly north. So we made a stop for a couple of hours to see the majestic lake and have some lunch.

 


 

Our first impressions of Como was the gorgeous old architecture and bustling narrow streets full of shops and cafes. Nearly every directions you look had a beautiful mountainous backdrop.

 


 

Like every Italian town, there was a beautiful Duomo in the centre of the city. Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta is a very special duomo because it is last Gothic cathedral built in Italy. It was built between 1396 to 1770.

 


 

The Lago di Como (Lake Como) is a huge body of water and is the third largest lake in Italy. Many wealthy people have built and resided in homes along the shore of the river, as far back as Roman times. It really is so spectacular to see in person and feels like your looking into a beautiful landscape painting. The lake is actually shaped like a wishbone and the city of Como is situated on the bottom left of the fork shape.

 


 

We continued walking around the Giardini del Tempio Voltiano and up to the Aero Club Como to see new perspectives of the lake. The garden itself is quite beautiful and plush and has many war memorials. If you have the time, you can take a small water plane from the Aero Club and see even more amazing birds eyes views. You can also visit the museum Tempio Voltiano, which is dedicated to the inventor of the electrical battery, Alessandro Volta.

 


 

The Passeggiata Villa Olmo is a scenic pedestrian road along the river. This walk will take you past the splendid villas, all the way to neoclassical Villa Olmo. Unfortunately on our visit we were not able to walk all the way to the Villa Olmo, as there was work being done on the grounds and the garden beds were all taken out. I wish the tourist office had mentioned that after they recommended we visit it. I imagine doing a tour of these villas would be amazing, to learn their history and see their interiors.

 


 

After all that walking we were really hungry. So we walked back towards to centre and headed to a hidden gem. L’Ora della Pasta is a small fast-service lunch bar that serves fresh pasta and ready made meals. They use organic and high quality ingredients and offer vegetarian and vegan options. You only need to choose your pasta and sauce and they will whip you up a lovely authentic meal that is reasonably priced and really delicious. We ordered Gnocchi al pesto and Ravioli con mozzarella di bufala.


 

So that was my short visit to Como. I hope you enjoyed revisiting it with me. If you would like to know more about this beautiful town, see Visit Como website for more information.

Bergamo: a medieval marvel

While visiting the Lombardia I wanted to see some of the smaller towns. So off we went to the beautiful medieval town of Bergamo. It is less than an hours drive by car (or train) from Milano, so it’s a perfect day trip outside of the big city. There is also an airport in Bergamo, which is about 20 minutes from the city center.

Bergamo can be divided into two halves, Alta città (upper city) and Bassa città (lower city). The upper city is the older part, which dates back to around 49 BC. They have quite an interesting history and if I could go back (without a toddler) I would do a historical tour. The local cuisine is also amazing, so make sure you arrive hungry.

 

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Milano: amazing food and beautiful architecture

In my last post, you saw some a few of my favourite places in Milano. However, there is so much more to this city. I spent a semester studying at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. I hope you enjoy reminiscing with me on my favourite eats and places to visit.

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Milano: a home away from home

Next stop on our trip was Italy. We stayed in Milano for a few nights so we could spend time with family and visit some nearby cities before heading up north to Luino. Milano has a special place in my heart, as I spent a semester living here when I was in my third year of Italian studies a few years back. When I wasn’t studying, I was walking, eating and shopping my way through the city or travelling to nearby cities. I’ve already seen all the sites, so I wanted to spend a day just enjoying my favourite places and doing a bit of shopping.

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