Venice: It Started With A Cornetto

Venice

On telling friends we were weekending in Venice, they all related two recent Italian travel stories: British holidaymakers being charged €64 (£54) for four ice-creams in Rome and Italian tourists being billed £85 for four liqueur-laced espresso coffees in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. We were already well aware of the ice-cream story as my partner, Roy, had won our Easy Jet flights with a corny limerick in the Saturday Telegraph: Google “telegraph travel those costly cornettos” and you’ll see what I mean. We were determined not to be caught out in the same way.
We flew from London Southend, named by Which? as the best airport in Britain, despite it still being under construction. Check-in and security were a doddle and Lakers bar quiet until the arrival of five hen parties and two stag groups. Fortunately, the boys headed for Amsterdam’s red light district and the girls for tapas in Barcelona.

Whilst the airport experience was good, the same cannot be said about the late flight time and we didn’t arrive at Marco Polo airport until 8pm. Wanting to avoid the sleek and speedy water-taxi transfer (said by Rough Guide to be “the most expensive form of taxi in Europe”), we headed for the water-bus at €13 each. Unfortunately we just missed the fast Arancino orange vaporetto to Rialto Bridge and as the next one wasn’t for an hour, we took the slower Blu route. We didn’t have long to wait but after everyone had disembarked, the boatmen disappeared off for what I suspect was a quick fag break before we were allowed on. As the luggage had to be stacked in order of disembarkation: this was not an Easy Jet speedy boarding experience. We eventually arrived, tired and hungry at the alternative San Zaccaria pier at 10.30pm.

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We’d decided to get a taxi to the hotel, not realising central Venice is traffic free. Whilst I navigated the alleys using my trusty flexi map, aided by light from passing shops and bars, Roy trailed in my wake humping the bag over the many stepped canal bridges. By the time we found Hotel Bruno, all the neighbouring bars and restaurants were closed except for Crazy Pizza, a small take-away next to the hotel. This provided wonderful, thin but firm, slices of Margarita Pizza for €2.20 each which we ate wandering down San Lio. We later discovered Trip Advisor rated it 85 out of Venice’s 1,066 restaurants. The next day we discovered La Boutique del Gelato on the other side of the hotel which provided my evening fix of ice-cream for €2.50. The hotel location, sandwiched between pizza and ice-cream, was my idea of bliss.

Hotel Bruno

Hotel Bruno sandwiched between pizza and ice-cream

We visited the must see sights of Piazza and Basilica di San Marco, Rialto Bridge, Doge’s Palace etc, but found them horrendously crowded and so we simply wandered and explored the maze of narrow alleys and streets. We stumbled across beautiful bridges, with their queues of gondolas, and small, sunny palazzos where we stopped for due bicchiere di vino bianco per favore. When learning a new language it’s always best to start with the basics: ‘two glasses of white wine please’ and ‘thank you’.

Instead of being steered into guide book recommended restaurants, we ate at interesting looking places we stumbled upon. Barco da Fiore was tiny with high wooden stools, a few wooden tables and benches and lots of locals. The huge range of vino was served either from oak barrels or the bottle and on the bar was an equally huge range of chicheti. We shared a mixed plate of arancini (rice balls), caponata, anchovies and roast potatoes and although it had to be eaten with plastic knives and forks, was delicious and reasonable.
We discovered Vinaria Nave d’oro a small shop selling wine from huge barrels decanted into 40 cent plastic bottles by hose. We bought 1.5 litres of a reasonable Pinot Grigo for €2.50. With a couple of rolls from a nearby bakery we had a superb and reasonable picnic feast. It’s just a shame there’s not more benches in the town where you can enjoy an al fresco lunch.

Decanting the Pinot Grigio

Decanting the Pinot Grigio

I was very undecided about whether to splash out €80 on a 40 minute gondola ride. One minute I thought, “I can’t possibly be in Venice and not go on a gondola” and then having seen them lining up to go under some of the bridges, it seemed a waste of money. The deciding factor was our trip on the Grand Canal No 2 Vaporetto where for €6.50 each, we rode for an hour. We were lucky to get outside seats at the front which provided us with lots of photographic opportunities. However, as I still felt something was missing, we took a traghetto (gondola ferry) from one side of the Grand Canal to the other for €2. It was full of locals and instead of two romantic seats, was standing room only. But at least I can say I’ve been on a gondola.

The Gondola Ferry

The Gondola Ferry

How would I rate my trip to Venice? The September sun shone through out, we came back with decently priced Murano glass souvenirs for Christmas presents and Euros in our pocket. Finally, to mangle a few film and song titles, if you can stay far from the madding crowds, in a city that does sleep, you won’t look back in anger.

Roman Holiday

535848_10150888553224107_488495508_n[1]The walled city of Rome is a labyrinth of winding streets and ally’s that lead to historical squares or impressive empowering statues, world famous fountains and decaying monuments. The hustle and bustle of tourists trying to fit in as much as possible make this city a fast paced one. For those that enjoy being on their feet pretty much all the major sights are within walking distance. Part of the joy of Rome is to walk around the corner and realise that you have stumbled upon yet another area of historical significance. This is Rome, a city bursting with culture and history. Unless you have been on the ‘Tombs and Catacombs’ tour underground for the whole duration it is pretty much impossible not to soak up some of the impressive history.

For those that would like to save their legs there is the metro link that is so cheap, quick and easy to use you can get from the Vatican to the Coliseum in no time at all. Navigational skills are a bonus here as one street often looks like the next, which do not connect as one might expect them to. My sense of direction definitely took a hit when wandering around the monument where warriors and slaves battled it out amongst the emperors. While trying to rush back in preparation for the evenings meal we found ourselves at a loss, three hours later to my friends utter dismay and my amusement we found ourselves stood on a very familiar corner looking out to the same monument we had left hours ago.

One way to easily spend a day is to visit the Vatican and St Peters Basilica. Purchasing tickets beforehand will save you from endless queues. By doing this you will also be supplied with a informative guide who will explain the city of the Vatican. Wandering through the rooms of endless paintings of wondrous colours and rich textures makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. The utter awe that comes from seeing the Sistine Chapel with the famous ceiling, passes shimmers down the spine. The hushed silence that spreads through the room like a canon of whispers makes it a unique collective appreciation of such a work of art.

One of the most difficult things in Rome is deciding where to eat. With so many bistros and cafes tucked within the stone walls some may find it a task on its own. A lot of restaurants around the centre of Rome have fabulous authentic menus to sample the local dishes. However don’t be afraid to venture away from the hub of tourists and try the quieter streets as these restaurants tend to offer the same great tasting food but for half the cost. Eating pizza here is almost a quilt free pleasure as it is cooked the Italian way, thin, crispy and not swimming in grease. If you have time its always fun to taste the pizza from its origin with a day trip to Naples. Those that want to stretch their legs could always take a hike up Mount Vesuvius. On a clear day the bay of Naples from the top of the mountain is a sight to behold.

On the return into Rome one of the best ways to relax and unwind after a hard days events is to eat in a candlelit restaurant with a glass of wine or two. Walk past the street entertainers, pick up a painting or souvenir and see the City of Rome lit up in lights. Take a stroll past the Trevi Fountain as the evening lights cast shadows on the statued faces. Pick up a coin, give it a rub close your eyes and toss it in the water. Watch as it joins the other glistening metals at the bottom of the fountain , a collection of international wishes all waiting to come true.

Chocolate: Italy’s Founding Fathers

Bacio-PeruginaThere are conflicting series as to how and when chocolate reached Italy. Some historians believe it was around the middle of
the 16th century when the exiled duke Emmanuel-Philibert returned to power, having experienced the delights of chocolate in Spain.

The popular theory is that chocolate was imported by a Florentine merchant, Antonio Carletti, who discovered it while travelling the world in search of new products to sell. The most likely theory is that chocolate was brought in as a medicine through the convents and monasteries.

By the 17th century a growing number of chocolate companies have become established in northern Italy, particularly
around the towns of Perugia and Turin. These companies in turn began to export the newly developed products to other European countries.

A collection of recipes by an 18th-century Italian priest shows the imagination of the Italians in the use of chocolate compared with other countries. Recipes included such dishes as: liver dipped in chocolate and fried, chocolate soup, chocolate pudding with veal, marrow and candied fruit, and chocolate polenta.

The Italians have always been accomplished confectionery and dessert makers. They started using chocolate as an ingredient very early on and thus established themselves as leading experts in the art of making fine chocolates. In 1884, when the Russian Tsar commissioned from the jeweller Fabergé his first golden egg with it surprise feeling of precious stones, Italian producers introduced what may have been the first chocolate Easter eggs containing a surprise gift.

The Italian chocolate industry is centred around Turin in Piedmont and Perugia in Umbria. Production on a commercial level developed in the early 19th century when Bozelli, an engineer from Genoa, designed a machine capable of producing over 300kg of chocolate per day. By the end of the century the industry was booming.

Turin is recognised as Italy’s chocolate capital. Every year during the last week of March there is a huge chocolate festival when you are surrounded by the rich scent of chocolate on every street corner. For the past 300 years, Turin has produced its world famous gianduja – a mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts. Turin is also known for bicerin, a beverage of coffee, chocolate and fresh whipped cream that originated in a coffee shop bearing the same name back in the 1800s. Another delicacy is chocolate filled with grappa, an Italian digestive which is made from grape seeds leftover from wine making.

There are several long-established firms in northern Italy. These include Caffarel, from whom the Italians learned to make chocolate, and Baratti & Milano, from the Turin area; Perugina (now owned by Nestlé) from Perugia, makers of the famous “Baci” (kisses) chocolate with the memorable packaging; and Majani in Bologna who now produce the ultimate in designer chocolates.

Image reproduced from bambini.eu

When in Rome…

It’s fair to say that Rome is one of Europe’s most in-demand cities right now, making the headlines for the new Pope, Francis. There’s no better time to visit the Eternal City and see it all for yourself on a short break to Rome.

St Peter's Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica

Iconic Ruins and Historical Sites

Grab yourself a Roma Pass (€30) to make the most of your time here and help your money to go further – it gives you free entry to two historical sites, museums or galleries, and discounted entry to many others. Start by using it at the Colosseum, where your pass will give you fast-track entry and you can admire the amazing architecture at your own pace. If you want to get your photo taken with a costumed ‘Roman Centurion’ outside, bear in mind that they tend to charge €5 for the privilege! Afterwards, head across the road to the Roman Forum and see the former centre of business and politics in the city, consisting of several different temples and spectacular arches.

For those of you really short on time, the best way to cover all the basics is to take a Vespa tour around the streets, ticking off key landmarks as you go, with a company such as Scooteroma. You’ll be able to stop off at regular intervals for photo opportunities and have the chance to quiz your drivers about their insider knowledge of the city, so be prepared to learn as you travel! An easy three hour tour gives you an excellent grounding of where the main sights are in relation to each other, as well as allowing you to access some of the neighbourhoods that the tour buses miss out altogether, such as Trastevere, which is full of rustic charm and has Rome’s only medieval piazza.

Some of the busier highlights should really be saved for early mornings or after dark, when the crowds will disperse and you can get a much better view. The Trevi Fountain is a perfect example; during the day you’ll struggle to get past school groups and other tourists, but it’s much quieter at night and you can get right to the front to throw a coin into the fountain for luck. Other places to try outside of peak time are the Mouth of Truth (or Bocca Della Verita) and the Spanish Steps.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

Museums and Galleries

Again, you can use your Roma Pass in many of the most popular sites, including the Borghese Gallery, which sits in the Villa Borghese Gardens, and the four branches of Rome’s National Museum, which are scattered around the city. Meanwhile the Vatican Museums are a firm favourite with visitors, due to the breath-taking artworks in the collections.

Of course, St. Peter’s Basilica is a must-see for culture lovers, who can marvel at the huge dome and climb the steps to see a stunning view, before moving onto the Sistine Chapel to admire Michelangelo’s legendary ceiling frescoes. For something more modern, try the MAXXI Museum, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, which is full of 21st century art, from the likes of Gilbert & George, to keep kids and teenagers interested.

Scooteroma Vespa Tour

Scooteroma Vespa Tour

Restaurants and Cafes

The best way to discover more authentic Roman food, and to avoid paying high tourist prices, is to step away from the restaurants closest to major monuments. Instead, be a bit more adventurous and head to the smaller streets to get a real taste of the city, with traditional and filling dishes such as wild boar ravioli, pasta with grilled artichokes and rustic pizza.

The former Jewish ghetto, which is right on the banks of the Tiber, is the perfect place to find cheap and hearty meals in family-run restaurants. Alternatively, over the river you’ll find that Trastevere is full of reasonably priced, independent trattorias and cafes. There’s also a lively food market here where you can pick up essentials.

Meanwhile, for food on the go, head to a café that serves pizza al taglio, which is pizza by the slice, measured in size or weight. It’s very cheap and easy to enjoy if you don’t have enough time for a sit-down meal. If you’re popping in for a coffee then this is also best enjoyed standing up, as you’ll pay much less for the privilege – typically around €1. Italians tend to enjoy cappuccinos and espressos early on, followed by a macchiato in the afternoons. Those of you who try and order a cappuccino after lunch may get a few strange looks, as it’s regarded as a morning-only drink here.

If you miss a good old-fashioned British cup of tea then head to Babington’s Tea Rooms, right beneath the Spanish Steps, to enjoy a bit of Blighty in an unlikely location. A convenient hotel close to the area is the Domus Romana, which is within easy reach of Babington’s and also the Trevi Fountain and the Forum – perfect for maximising your sightseeing potential.

Whatever you choose to do in Rome, you’re never far away from a slice of culture in the Eternal City. The hardest part will be narrowing down your wish list of places to see!

Limoncello at Cambridge Food and Wine Society (with La Dante)

After I arranged a tasting of Italian wines for La Dante in Cambridge last year, Giulia Portuese-Williams, who runs the centre, suggested we do a joint event together with the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

When, shortly afterwards, I made contact with Steve Turvill who runs Limoncello on Mill Road, everything fell into place and we agreed to promote the event together using our various Twitter accounts and Facebook groups.

La Dante in Cambridge is part of the international la Società Dante Alighieri, founded in 1889 with 440 offices worldwide – it is a national cultural institute rather like the British Council or the Goethe Institute, but unlike these it is not state-funded and so needs to rely on language lessons for its income.

As the old adage goes, I’m sure at least half of our social media efforts were wasted, but I’ve no idea which half; in any case it proved to be the best attended event the Society has held for a long time.

Numbers aside, it also proved very popular with both Society and La Dante members as well as the new guests who came along, including Caroline Biggs who writes an excellent  blog on Cambridge’s hidden past, The Real Cambridge.

After introductions and welcomes, Giulia briefly spoke about La Dante which has recently moved into new offices, describing her experience of British bureaucracy as what she hoped to leave behind when she left her native Italy.

She also made an open invitation for everyone to drop into La Dante to see the new offices and have a cup of real Italian coffee, but I suspect that may not apply to the powers that be that oversee property moves in Cambridge.

We started the event itself with a Prosecco, Villa Sandi Millesimato 2011 Valdobbiandene – with ripe pear fruit, hints of yeasty brioche and good depth on the palate, it had good, food-friendly acidity and a long finish.

The name was familiar and reviewing this blog, I see that I tried a sparkler from Sandi some time ago and checking my notes, was impressed with it then as well.

Steve then invited us to try two different sets of olives – the first cured, the second marinaded; the accompaniment to this was a Sicilian Grecanico, Vinali Roccamora Sicilia. Also known as Garganega in Soave and with just 12% alcohol, it was crisp and fresh. A sandy yellow in the glass, it had an expressive nose, with herbaceous, floral hints, white pepper spice and toasty yeastiness; there is lemony citrus on the palate, and a long, savoury finish

There followed a series of “taste tests”, starting with two olive oils; both had been poured into unmarked containers and we were invited to decide which we preferred – one being significantly more expensive than the other.

For me, olive oil should be strong, fruity and peppery and I was sorry to learn that my preferred, more-strongly flavoured oil proved to be the more expensive one.

This set up something of a pattern as we then repeated this with two types of cured ham – both were very good, but I found myself slightly preferring the (more expensive) San Daniele compared to the Prosciutto.

Next were two lots of balsamic vinegar to try – the first was thick, gloopy and sweet, whilst the second was incredibly complex and quite wonderful, so there were no surprises when #1 proved to be a basic “balsamic glaze” whilst the second was a 25yo, extremely expensive balsamico tradizionale.

We accompanied this part of the tasting with a Sangiovese; with cherry fruit and vanilla spice on the nose, there was juicy sour cherry on the palate which opens up and becomes more rounded with air.

Steve’s chef Paul then made some pesto freshly using a blender which we compared to some from the shop; I found myself preferring the shop-made pesto for its stronger flavour and higher cheese content, but a number of people on the table who are regular visitors to Italy found the more herbaceous, freshly-made pesto to be typical of what they had experienced in Italy.

This led on to a discussion with Giulia about how best to keep basil in Cambridge – whilst I can grow rosemary, tarragon, parsley and chives in our south-facing garden, I’ve never been successful with basil.

According to Giulia, basil needs hot, damp conditions to thrive – essentially a Mediterranean climate, which is not easily reproduced in Cambridge – so I am unlikely to be making pesto from home-grown basil any time soon.

We then moved on to a comparison of three types of cheese – a Pecorino Fresco which had a soft texture, a firmer and stronger aged Pecorino with saffron and black pepper and some shaved parmesan, accompanied by bresaola, marinaded artichokes and various breads.

With this, Steve served an Elvio Cogno Vigna Elena 2005 Barolo; still relatively youthful at 6 years old, it was a pale, brick red in the glass with red and black cherry, tobacco leaf and pepperiness on the nose with cherry fruit, minty eucalyptus on the palate and a grippy finish.

The dessert section of the tasting featured home-made pannetone – better than any shop-bought one I have ever had – and cantuccini biscuits with a Moscato Sicilia; a golden colour, it had a an oxidative nose with a marmaladey palate cut through with fresh acidity.

The final digestivo was, appropriately enough a limoncello – a sweet lemon liqueur; on many occasions when eating out in Italy, I have found a sorbetto al limone con Prosecco a perfect digestivo at the end of a long, multi-course meal and the limoncello served the same purpose here.

With a zesty, pithy nose, it is initially intensely sweet and warming on the palate with a mouthfilling zesty, pithy bitterness that develops over time and a long, citrusy, aromatic finish.

It was a great event and very well received by Society members, those from La Dante and the large number of guests who came along – I put the success down to the sheer quality of the food and wine that Steve brought along for us to try, as well as to the way he ran the event; he is an easy-going, natural presenter and his love of and enthusiasm for all things Italian is very apparent – even if, as he admits, he would not actually want to live there.

For the final part of his talk, Steve explained how he had first got involved with Limoncello; in its previous guise, it had been his favourite deli and when it went bust, he bought the business and ran it as a sideline to his day-job. After a few years, the business was successful enough for him to do it full time and he is now looking to expand with further branches in the Cambridge area.

It should come as no surprise that there were a number of expressions of interest from the audience at this point.

Links

Cambridge Food and Wine Society – website, Facebook, Twitter

La Dante – website, Facebook, Twitter

Limoncello – website, Facebook, Twitter

Review of Limoncello on Wanton Flavours – http://wantonflavours.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/limoncello.html

More on Elvio Cogno from Chris Kissak – http://www.thewinedoctor.com/italy/cogno.shtml

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Review: The Six Nations 2012

With The Olympics and the UEFA European Championships just around the corner, there is a lot to be said for 2012’s sporting calendar. However, whilst the anticipation of the summer’s events rises, the first sporting major event of the year came to an end this weekend – the thirteenth year of rugby’s Six Nations.  Pulling in an average of 4.6 million viewers, the showcasing of talent was an event that enthralled and excited, aggravated and frustrated several different players, fans and nations alike, as, once again, for the eighth time in thirteen years since its amalgamation, it was a British team that took the spoils.

But, whilst Warren Gatland’s Wales reigned supreme, taking third Grand Slam victory in eight years, there were a lot of positives for every country to take from the seven-week event, producing players that lit-up the tournament, whenever they had a chance.

Scotland

As the firm underdogs of the tournament up until Italy’s inclusion in 2000, the Scottish team were unlucky not to win a game this year. Albeit their play is usually quite stinted, with short passes never equating to much ground made, they are always a team that will scrap their way to victory. Something they proved this year after narrow defeats to France and England – two games where the result could have gone either way.

With the British Lions on tour next year it is the Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg that would be most disappointed if he were to miss out on a call-up. Adding an amount of flair and panache that usually lacks in the Scottish team, Hogg’s formidable gift for running rugby is one that should, soon enough, end Scotland’s long-running losing-streak.

Stuart Hogg slices through the defence

Italy

Italy have developed in leaps and bounds over the past thirteen years. Most notably seen by their unfortunate defeat at the hands of England, after they went in at half time leading by twelve points to six, it seems that inexperience is not longer a problem.  Finishing off the tournament with a (scrappy) win over Scotland, it seems only a matter of time before they start scratching more W’s on to their results board.

If it weren’t for the replacement of ever-reliable kicker Kristopher Burton, the Italians would have embarrassed England in the opening weeks of the tournament, as his absence between the posts lost them the game. A face, and foot, to look out for in the future, as Italy continue look to stamp their dominance on the game.

Kristopher Burton keeps it cool

France

As always, the French produced some beautiful rugby. Fine lines of running, well placed kicks and monstrous tackling were all on the menu whenever Les Bleus took to the field. However, after a crippling draw with the Irish, the French team began to act accordingly, losing their tempers and, subsequently, the following two matches.

Once again the French showed that they do running-rugby better than most, most poignantly proved by their new centre, Wesley Fofana. Finishing the tournament with five caps and four tries, Fofana is definitely a name that will be revered in the future, as experience will only add to his plethora of skills and talents.

Wesley Fofana makes it four from four against England

Ireland

Ending as the tournaments top try scorers, Ireland were, once again, unfortunate not to finish higher up the table. Their dominance in the pack, despite a hiccup against England, was a constant threat, with their backs constantly tearing up opposition defences at breakneck speeds. Yes, their heyday of talent may be coming to an end, with many of the Grand Slam victors of 2009 nearing retirement, but the new wave of talent is developing in abundance, promising to be a danger to any team that comes up against them.

This year, Ireland’s lucky star was shining in Tommy Bowe. Despite a questionable decision taking away a tournament-record for the winger, denying him his sixth of the year, he was always a constant threat for the opposition. With blistering pace, a fantastic chip-and-chase and marvellous covering tackles, Bowe has several years left in him to reach that try-scoring goal.

Tommy Bowe bags another

England

Coming off the back of a disgraceful World Cup, England saw a complete turnaround in personnel. Several uncapped players graced the field in the opening game against Scotland, as England produced one of their more questionable victories. However, the weeks went by, and the nation’s wariness of the team seemed to disperse. England’s new blood fought hard against the French and the Irish, securing victories that would dismiss any uncertainty that lay there before the tournament.

Yes, new boy Owen Farrell was a great asset to the team, scoring an impressive 63 points in 5 games, however it was Stuart Lancaster’s inclusion to the squad that made all of the difference. The question of who should be next England manager has surely been answered after three away wins in the tournament – a record held by no other man to take the reigns of England’s team.

Stuart Lancaster has the players' support

Wales

Another scintillating tournament from the Welsh side saw the team take their Grand Slam, after a final victory in Paris. Perhaps a bit of poetic justice following on from their dismissal at the hands of Les Bleus from the World Cup last year, however a marvellous all-round performance nonetheless. Several players have marked their desire to feature in the Lions’ tour next summer and, with Welsh coach Warren Gatland set to take the helm there, too, it would be astonishing if a lot of the Welsh players did not feature.

With a powerful line-up, their backs averaging an astonishing weight of 1.92m and weighing in at 112.9kg, it was one of the smaller Welsh players that packed the most punch. 5ft 10 fullback Leigh Halfpenny is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to running, tackling and, as he proved in the dying minutes against France, kicking. Pegged as a new JPR Williams, Halfpenny was definitely one of the best things to emerge from this tournament, with his astounding talents helping the Welsh to victory in almost every aspect of their game.

Leigh Halfpenny puts the boot in to France

The tournament itself may have had some negative points; games were not as enthralling as they have been in the past, scores were not as high. But what is certain is that the progression of talent and skill is clear from all nations, proving that the annual event should not be frowned upon, but welcomed by every team looking to develop their reputation in the rugby world.

Images reproduced from belfasttelegraph.co.uk, connector.tv, smh.com, universityobserver.ie, telegraph.co.uk and rbs6nations.com