Italy VII – Just when you thought it was safe to come out…

Aaaaahhhh! You thought I’d finished the blog about Italy yesterday. Well, there are a few loose ends to clear up. All the stuff that doesn’t really fit into the individual days.

Map of Italy

Red dots show where we went. From the top: Riva, Verona, Venice, Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Assisi, Chianciano Terme, Rome.

I love the travelling part of travel. Admittedly, some mornings it was hard to enjoy the coach journey but there were other mornings when I enjoyed just staring out of the window watching the world go by. I tried taking photos from the coach and although the contrast was a little low, and there was some blur from the movement, I was pleased with the results. On the way back to the hotel from the cities, the air conditioned coach was most welcome, along with Andreas’ (the driver) supply of chilled water. For most of the trip we had the coveted front seats (although we didn’t realise exactly how much they were coveted until the complaints on day four led the tour rep to say ‘It’s a free for all tomorrow and I don’t want to be involved’. And indeed, she hid in the hotel that morning until just before the coach left. The ensuing fuss was entertaining to watch from our new coveted seats half way down the bus, by the middle door.)

The people on our trip, with a few exceptions, were an odd bunch, most of whom seemed to want to complain about something. I have no problem with that; as a nation we don’t complain enough when it is justified. But many people seemed to use it as a means to get attention. I don’t care if your room isn’t perfect (ours wasn’t on the first night). Don’t tell me, tell the hotel staff (as we did – no fuss, we were moved, we were happy). There were a few complaints (or mutterings or whatever) about the walking and distances involved. Given that some of the group were a little unsteady on their feet, this was inevitable. I was impressed that people coped with the heat and the distance as well as they did, but ultimately, this was a trip that very obviously would involve a lot of travelling and a lot of walking. It was not suitable for all.

I think the worst bit for me was the journey home. Our flight from Milan was scheduled for 14.35 and we had to be in the airport at 12.30 for check-in. Our coach left Chianciano Terme at 5am to rendezvous with another from Lake Garda at Verona airport at 10am, from where there was another 2hr transfer to Milan. Fair enough. A long journey, but so be it. But when we got to Milan, it turned out that the flight had been ‘rescheduled’ to depart at 4pm. Only if I were cynical would I dare to suggest that the early departure from Chianciano was actually to allow the tour rep to pick up her new tour group from Verona airport at 10.20 without having to go through the hassle of putting on a second coach so we could leave at 7am. Only were I to be deeply unimpressed with the rep’s performance throughout the trip would I suggest that maybe she should have been aware of the rescheduled flight times, and perhaps she was but chose not to tell us.

All this makes it seem that I didn’t enjoy the trip. I did, and very much so. It helped that I was in fantastic company (thanks Em), and that early on we met a couple of like minded souls who helped made the evening meals and, particularly, the last night at Chianciano a special (and at times, hysterically funny) experience. Together, the four of us overcame the inflated Vatican Museum Tour Priority Ticket prices and conquered the queues. Em and I avoided the obvious during most of the city tours and tried to find the hidden in most of the places we went to, which paid off.

For the geeks (amongst whose number I include myself), I took 913 photos, mostly on my little compact camera. If I was going again, I wouldn’t pack so much and I’d leave more room for souvenirs. I’d think again about the camera I took. If I wanted to do the tour again, I’d concentrate on Riva del Garda, Venice, San Gimignano, Assisi, Chianciano and Rome. We discussed this after we got home and the ideal tour would be at our own pace with our own transport. We’d build in days with no firm plans so that we could just sit in a cafe and watch. I would like to spend a bit more time looking at the Roman ruins in Rome, but the rest of the city doesn’t interest me.

I have to mention the food and drink. For me this was the underlying pleasure that everything else rested on. The food, every bit of it, was of superior quality compared to what we are used to here in the UK. The simplest snacks were richly tasty and well presented. The coffee was superb. The wine was wonderful (and I’m not a red wine fan). The ice cream was thick and creamy. And despite what I’d been told (and not counting the Florence Ice Cream incident), the prices were not excessive. I’m prepared to pay for quality, but I was surprised at how little I did pay for it.

Italy gets a tick from me.

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Italy VI – 2,000 years in 6 hours

(This post was updated by the spolling police as a result of the awful spolling, for which there is no excuse. Dave will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Apologies.)

Time flies when you’re having a good time and as a result, Saturday came around far quicker than it should have. Our last full day in Italy was set aside for possibly the highlight of the trip. Rome.

I wanted to see the Colosseum. I was hoping to see the Circus Maximus and the Forum. I wanted to see and experience the centre of Roman culture as all I had seen to date were the remains of defences built on the borders of their empire. As impressive as Hadrian’s Wall and the amphitheatre at Caerleon are, the capital of the Roman Empire would be more so because it was the beginning of it all.

We had about 6 hours in total in Rome. All week our rep had been extolling the virtues of buying a guided tour of the Vatican for 35 Euros. She explained that it would get us priority tickets to bypass the inevitable queues at the Vatican Museum. We had already signed up for the morning coach tour to enable us to see a range of the sights but we were in two minds about the Vatican tour. In the end we decided not to.

We picked up our coach tour guide and set off around the outside of St Peters square and the Vatican. We made our way past significant religious sites and on to the Roman centre of the city. Unfortunately, viewing these places through the coach windows wasn’t the best way to do it. We passed magnificent ruins that deserved time being taken to view and appreciate them. There was no time or opportunity to experience their size and grandeur.

We stopped at the Colosseum to spend about 30 minutes in the grounds. It was as spectacular as I had expected, although physically smaller than I imagined. What made it for me, though, was the context in which it sat. Nearby was the fountains where the surviving Gladiators would bathe following their fights, the Meta Sudans. I found it easy to imagine the banter and joking that would hide the sheer relief of surviving. Behind it were the remains of the temple to Venus. Close by was Constantine’s Arch, the last such monument built by the Romans and erected to commemorate Constantine’s victory over the last pagan Emperor, Maxentius.

Behind, near to where the coach dropped us off was the site of the original village on which Rome was founded in 800BC. It would have been good to tour the Colosseum but I quickly realised that to do it justice would require a good few hours, and we didn’t have that. The urge to pop in for half an hour wasn’t there. Instead, we jumped on the coach and drove past the Circus Maximus, where chariot racing took place (see Ben Hur) in front of up to 250,000 people.

We moved on passing the extensive ruins of the forum, the centre of Roman rule, Hadrian’s tomb (which was later turned into a fortress for the Vatican) and a 2,000 year old bridge across the Tiber. Our guide explained that after the fall of the Roman Empire, it took the citizens of Rome another 600 years to build another bridge over the river. It was the same in Britain. After the Romans left, the technology they left us was allowed to fall into ruin and it’s like wasn’t seen for more than a thousand years.

I have always found historical sites amazing and atmospheric. You can read a number of my blog entries on the subject. The remains in Rome were no exception and i found myself imagining the famous and powerful people that had been to these places when they weren’t ruins. Simple things, like worn steps and the socket holes left by people stealing the marble from the walls of the Colosseum helped.

Those of us not going on the guided tour of the Vatican were dropped outside the walls and given directions to the museum. We walked around the walls, always expecting to find the end of the queue we’d been promised. We found the entrance and went through the door and sure enough, there was a line of people. But we quickly realised that this wasn’t a queue, but a bunch of people on a tour listening to their guide. We bypassed them and went to the ticket desk. No queue. We walked through having paid only 15 Euros and couldn’t believe our luck.

Our initial plan was to bypass the museums and go straight to the Sistine Chapel, our goal for this part of the day. But there was no short cut and we joined the crowds as they made their way through the first of many rooms.

How glad we were that we didn’t miss out on the museums. The sheer volume of exhibits alone was impressive, before we started to look at them individually. Everywhere we looked, there was something magnificent, or beautiful. Paintings on the walls full of vibrant colour and intricate detail. Frescos on the ceiling with fantastic depth. Sculptures so life like I half expected them to move (like the living sculptures we’d seen in every city we’d been to so far). One exhibit was just a foot!

We passed through a gallery of ancient maps of Italy and some of the Italian provinces (Italy didn’t become a single country until the 1861). We passed through a long corridor with magnificent frescos on the ceiling, that seemed to stretch for miles. And all the time the signs pointed to way to the Sistine Chapel.

We could both feel a sense of mounting excitement as we neared the chapel. The museum exhibits became a blur (which are just beginning to refocus as I look through the photos we took) but the general sense of magnificence and and riches built up. Looking back it was a clever way to bring people to the chapel itself; a clever psychological build up. We entered the final gallery, of modern art, and then headed up the simple steps through a small door and suddenly we were in the Sistine chapel itself.

My honest first opinion was ‘is this it?’ I guess after an hour or so of rich, bright colour, detail, beauty and opulence, the chapel was dark and seemed a bit dull. The place was fairly full of tourists and all of them seemed to be taking photos, despite the signs up saying not to. There was a loud murmur of hundreds of voices, too.

I looked up to the ceiling, and at the same time started to realise the significance of the place I was in. This was where the Cardinals gathered to choose the new Pope. Given the the Popes have had a massive influence throughout history, this place was probably one of the most significant places I have ever been to.

The ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo took him 4 years to complete. Other Renaissance artists, including Botticelli and Perugino contributed work to the walls. I got neck ache from looking up at the ceiling for so long but I found I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were familiar from pictures and the TV but seeing them for real, a few feet above me, was a priceless experience that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

A clap from near the door was the guard attracting our attention. He said ‘Silenzio, no photographs’. I had taken two at that point, but I put the camera away. Many of the people around completely ignored the request but the guard did nothing. I didn’t want to leave the chapel but it was time to move on.

Beyond the chapel, more corridors and galleries awaited but most people walked swiftly through them, having experienced the climax of the tour in the chapel. I am a little ashamed to say i was one of those, although I made an effort to look at the personal artefacts of some of the popes and cardinals. Ornately bound bibles, intricately carved crucifixes and a myriad of other items were displayed, bringing a more intimate feel to the museum: Everything we’d seen up to this point had been public works (or at least owned by the church).

We passed the inevitable gift stalls and shops, which was also a bit disappointing. It reminded me of something I’d been noticing all through this trip; the difference between the wealth of the church and the poverty of the beggars often found outside church buildings. (This was most obvious in Florence, when we passed a beggar prostrated on the floor with his forehead on the ground at the entrance to the cathedral, in which the value of the artefacts and décor would probably have fed the whole city for a week.) I have never been able to understand that anomaly about any region where the there is an emphasis on money. I was most surprised at Assisi, where the Basilica was full of costly adornments despite the Franciscan order renouncing worldly goods. While the purpose of this blog is to tell you about my holiday, I cant help but quote a lyric from U2:

“The god I believe in isn’t short of cash…”

Outside the Vatican Museum, we made our way back to St Peters Square and drank in the atmosphere. The queue to enter the Basilica spiralled around the square and we crossed the line a couple of times as we walked around. Then it was off, across the border (the Vatican is a separate state to Italy) and down the Via della Concilliazone towards the gellaterie for an ice cream. We sat at the side of the road, within sight of St Pauls Basilica eating an ice cream, before making our way back to the meeting point and on to the coach for the journey back to the hotel.

Rome was a little disappointing, but only when measured against my expectations.  I expected too much of a mere 6 hours in the city. It’s one of those places I’d like to go back to and explore leisurely and on foot, because that is the only way to take it all in.I’d need a full day just of the Colosseum and it’s immediate surrounds.

One day, perhaps.

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Italy V – A walk in the country

I wasn’t sure what I would make of Assisi. I remembered the stories of St Francis from my childhood days – I think it might have been a Ladybird book of saints. But I didn’t know much about the city and I’d forgotten most of what I’d read about the saint other than he was the patron saint of animals. From the information our tour rep gave us, he was the son of a wealthy business man in Assisi around 1190, and after a vision, he renounced worldly goods and founded the Franciscan order, as well as the Order of Poor Clares, for women. He developed the Stigmata (marks similar to the wounds of Christ on the cross) and he died in 1226. A church was built on the spot where he died. But the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the massive church built on two levels, sits high above it on Monte Subasio.

We entered the city walls and immediately started to climb the hill, making our way first to the Basilica. Inside, it was cool and dark and magnificent. There weren’t too many people there and we had a chance to admire the relics and décor. I was a little disappointed to see the candles for people to light in memory of a loved on were plastic, with little electric light bulbs on them. A sign proclaimed ‘candle will burn when a donation is made’ which was above a coin slot. It was like a slot machine in a seaside arcade. Fortunately, the rest of the Basilica was magnificent and more than made up for that quirky aberration. We went through the lower church and made our way down to the tomb of St Francis. This was in a small and dark chamber in which a simple stone tomb was surrounded by steps and the trappings of religious worship. On the step, a man knelt with his forehead on the stone and for some reason, this affected me quite deeply. In the background, the gentle sounds of chanting echoed through as a service was being held in the church above.

From the Basilica, we made our way up the main cobbled street, spiralling its way up the side of the hill. We were approached by what i can only describe as a typical Franciscan monk, dressed in rough robe held at the waste by rope, and he started to talk to us in Italian. I explained we weren’t Italian (“Inglese”) and he spoke in fair English that he represented a village for disadvantaged children and was collecting donations. He’d written a book, and with good humour, he said ‘I am one of the better writers. Shakespeare, Dante, then me, well maybe Oscar Wilde, Byron then me 5th”. I gave him a donation, but as the book was in Italian, I didn’t buy a copy.

As we went further up the hill, we stopped of to visit a museum dedicated to the Franciscan missionary programme in South America. It was full of exhibits brought back at the turn of the 20th Century – arrows, spears and the paraphernalia of everyday life in the jungles of Brazil and Peru, amongst others.

We were leaving the crowds behind now and the buildings seemed to be getting older. Beautifully coloured flowers adorned the outside of homes. Little side alleys and lanes appeared randomly. Em spotted an old car in a covered alley way. I was beginning to get fascinated in the old doors and how their designs differed and there were plenty ot see in this street. Then we reached a small square in which the Roman Temple to Minerva stands, along with several street cafes. We were going to stop for a snack there, but a bunch of French school kids had started to sing and it wasn’t as peaceful as we would have liked. So we continued on through the piazza and further up the hill. We decided to turn off toward the castle at the top of the hill but about half way up the steps, we spotted a small cafe behind high walls on a terrace.

Through the gate we found an idyllic little cafe with gorgeous views out over the Umbrian countryside, flatter and with larger field systems than Tuscany. We were just in time to shelter from a short but heavy rain shower which did nothing to dampen our spirits. We say sipping coffee and snacking and just enjoying the day and the countryside. In the distance, on rough clay tiled roofs, we watched a cat slowly make its way up to the ridge and survey its territory before making its way to a covered chimney pot to shelter from the sun. All the while, swallows flitted and swooped around the nearby bell tower.

Then it was time to head back down to the coach. Reluctantly we left the little terrace and its lemon trees and made our way at a leisurely pace down the cobbled street. This time we called inot some of the shops on the way. At one, we bought a truffle, interested to find out what all the fuss was about. We were presented by a small, hard, black ‘thing’ which we had no idea how to eat. In the end, we managed to break a bit of and we ground a little of the inside off with our teeth. We’d been warned that it would taste earthy, but it tasted of walnut to me. It was packed away in the bag and we continued on our way.

All too soon we were back at the coach park and reluctantly we climbed aboard ready to head back to Chianciano. But this time we were not heading for the hotel, but for the old town on the hill some two miles away. We had the opportunity to be dropped off in the old town and to make our way back to the hotel on foot. We walked among little back streets on the edge of the hillside before finding a little cafe, empty of tourists (apart from us) where we sat and had a cold Italian beer. The wind was quite strong, with enough force to blow the empty glasses along the table. But it was lovely just to sit and let the world go by at its own pace.

Reluctantly we set off for the hotel, following the vague guidance given to us by the tour rep. We kept to the main road and followed signs for Piazza Italia and eventually found our way to familiar ground. The hotel, and in particular the shower, was a welcome sight after the walk in the sun.

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Italy IV – Our Retirement Home

We both wanted to see Tuscany. The photos in brochures and guidebooks were stunning and so attractive. We’d had a taster yesterday, driving through the countryside our our way to Chianciano but today the schedule said we would be visiting a small Tuscan hilltop town, San Gimignano.Our route took us through the country roads, avoiding the autostrada which would have ruined the atmosphere. Instead, we drove over hills, passing rows of arrow straight vines. We passed through Montepulciano, a classic hilltop town and our rep told us that the best red wine from the area was called Vino Noble (we were later to have a bottle and it was indeed delicious).

Eventually we pulled into the car park of San Gimignano, a small town set on a 334m high hill overlooking the Else valley. It sits on an old pilgrim route, which assured it’s prosperity. San Gimignano was famous for having a large number of tall towers within it’s walls. They were built as status symbols by wealth residents and while in other towns and cities, the towers have been destroyed by war, here fourteen still survive.

Incongruously, we were in the car park of a supermarket and it was full of people doing the weekly shop! But we soon walked away from that and once we’d entered the town walls, we were in a different world. The single street, more like a narrow lane, was bounded by 3 or 4 storey shops and dwellings. We were fortunate that there were few people there and it made the place more atmospheric. Early on, we visited the museum of torture, a bizarre place to find in such a tranquil setting. But it was fascinating in a morbid kind of way. This is not the place for detail, but it made us think about what people will do to other people in the name of religion, for most of the exhibits on show were related to punishing witchcraft, heresy and paganism.

We walked slowly to the top of the hill, where two markets were taking place. Just before we reached the markets, we found the church. It was large for the size of town and clearly dominated both life and skyline. Expecting touristy wares to be on offer in the markets, we were pleasantly surprised to finds that the top most one was the local produce market, selling fresh fruit and vegetables to the locals. We managed to locate a narrow back alley which, after a few yards walk, opened out to provide a stunning view of the surrounding countryside. The undulating hills were green with cypress trees and the patterns of rows of grape vines. Small fields bounded by hedges filled in the gaps. There were no livestock visible.

We slowly made our way back down again, for we had only two hours here before we headed off to Siena, a larger city nearby. For me, San Gimignano was one of the highlights of the tour so far (and turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip). I could see myself coming back here and it would be a pleasant place to spend a retirement.

Siena was almost a complete opposite and we talked afterwards about how we should have had more time in San Gimignano. I think we visited Siena at a time during the trip that we could have done with a rest day. The mid afternoon heat was stronger here than anywhere else we’d been, and we spent the first 45 minutes sat in a sheltered cafe with a welcome breeze blowing, sampling the local fare. The Piazza del Campo, (the town square) square was bordered on three sides by art galleries and tall blocks of dwellings and cafes. The fourth side was dominated by the Palazzo Pubblica (the town hall) and the Torre del Manga (tower of the eater, named after a local dignitary famed for spending all his money on food).

Unusually for the places we’d seen so far, the Cathedral (Santa Maria Assunta) was located away from the centre of the town, almost in a back street. We found it when we were looking for a place to eat our ice cream in some shelter from the sun.

I’m sure Siena has its charms and secret places but I think on the day we visited we were beginning to suffer from some overload of the senses. Siena didn’t do it for me and that’s probably partly my fault. But to some extent it was because we were comparing it unfavourably to San Gimingano, which matched our ‘ideal’ image of Tuscany.

We arrived back in Chinaciano for a welcome rest before a 5 course meal which was, once again, delicious. As was the bottle of Vino Noble we had with it.

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Italy III – Crossing the Apenines

We had eaten out last night, rather than had the set hotel meal, as we wanted to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere of Riva del Garda. After food, as the evening turned to night, we sat on the shore of Lake Garda and watched the twinkling street lights that defined the shore stretching into the distance. It was comfortably warm and I could have sat there for hours. But Florence was our city for the following day and we needed to pack as we were transferring to our second hotel in Chianciano Terme.

The coach journey was one of the longer ones but it was made a little more bearable by the countryside we were travelling through. We were climbing to pass through the Apenine mountains – the ‘spine of Italy’ –  through and across a series of tunnels and bridges. We reached the high point, about 750m, and started to descend towards Tuscany.

Tuscany was one of the places we were both looking forward to seeing. The rolling hills, vineyards and farm land were some of the images that has attracted us to the whole holiday. We weren’t disappointed. The rain clouds that had drizzled on us in the mountains cleared and we were treated to sunlit fields of grapes, wheat and orchards passing by on both sides, while in the distance, little villages and towns perched precariously on hills. They were built there for protection and to provide early warning of approaching trouble. It also meant there was more room on the fertile ground for crops.

In Florence, the late morning sun had taken the temperature up to 29C and because the city sits in a valley, there was little wind to cool us. We decided not to take the walking tour but to set off and explore on our own. We have found in the past that getting lost leads to more discovery and adventure. We started off in the Piazza del Duomo – Duomo being the Italian for Cathedral. This one is dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower) and is the third largest in Italy. It has a detached bell tower with some 400 steps and although it would have provided a fantastic view from the top, 400 steps was too much to contemplate in the heat and humidity.

Instead, we decided to head south to the river Arno and Ponte Vecchio. This bridge survived WW2 when the retreating German forces destroyed all the other bridges across the river. They were persuaded to leave the beautiful and historical bridge intact and instead blocked the southern end by demolishing the buildings there. Ponte Vecchio has little shops on it; they were once butchers but now they are jewellers and craft shops. We crossed the narrow bridge and stopped to pick up some food from a local delicatessen before finding a little park out of the way of the crowds to sit and eat lunch. The hectic schedule and the heat of mid afternoon was beginning to tell on both of us and it was nice to get away and relax in the shade for half an hour.

We strolled along the south bank of the Arno and climbed the ever steepening hill to Piazza Michelangelo. We passed through the inevitable street vendors, selling everything from fake designer sunglasses to fake designer handbags. Beyond them, the panorama before us was amazing and one of the sights that will stay with me for a long time. Set out before us was the city of Florence, red roofed and punctuated by church towers, domes and the bridges across the river. Beyond, the hills were little farm houses, hillside villages and fields of vineyards and crops. It was a beautiful sight and helped to put the city into context, something we hadn’t been able to do when at street level.

We made our way back to the city and I found it easier to take in some of the sites now I’d seen the plan. There were a lot of works of art, statues mainly, which had been donated to the city by a wealthy patron on condition that they were displayed to the public. They lined the street outside the Palazzo della Signoria although I read that some of them have been replaced by replicas to preserve the originals. Michelangelo’s David, with head, hands and feet out of proportion to the body, stands to the left of the entrance (although this is now a replica, which is somewhat disappointing). The oversized head, hands and feet are thought to be because the statue was originally intended to be placed on the roof line of the Cathedral.

In the quest for an ice cream in every city, we were very nearly conned into paying £14 for two cones from a shop. The prices indicated were unclear and before I knew what had happened, I had a large cone of chocolate in my hand as the guy serving didn’t wait for me to ask. We were taken inside to pay, where it appeared that the price list showed the cone and the ice cream were separate. I refused to pay and handed back the cone, as did Em, and we walked out to the protests from the shop owner. We weren’t chased down the street, and it was the only time we felt unfairly treated during the whole trip.

We made our way through the Piazza della Repubblica, where Hannibal Lecter disembowelled one of his victims from a window overlooking the square (in a film, I hasten to add), past the Duomo with its distinctive striped light and dark grey stone work and on to the rendezvous for the coach in Piazza Santa Croche. I am a little ashamed to say that in the heat and being a little tired after the last few days, I may have referred to it as Piazza Santa Crotch. Em may have laughed at that, too. But we got a lovely ice cream each, for the more reasonable sum of £4.20 for the two, and we sat on the steps of the church and ate them while we watched workmen erecting seating for some event to be held in the square later that evening.

We got to the new hotel, the Alexander Palme, around 6ish, and we were immediately impressed by the place. It was listed as a 4 star hotel and certainly looked the part; columns on the outside and outside seating. Inside, it was old fashioned in a good way. I understand it was built in the 40’s. Our 2nd floor room was large and tiled and beyond the trees we could see the hills and villages of the area. The staff couldn’t do enough to make us welcome and during the 6 course dinner that evening, they welcomed us with a little speech and gave us complimentary champagne.

It was a lovely way to first experience Tuscany, but the best Tuscan experience was yet to come.

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Italy II – Return of the Sun

Tuesday was Venice day. This was one of the places I particularly wanted to visit, although I had set my expectations fairly low as I knew it would be full of people. There was also a lingering doubt about the weather, and I’d been told that it smelled quite bad. I guess with all those people crammed onto a few little islands, there was bound to be some odour issues. So it was with some trepidation that I looked out of the hotel window. The sun was shining on the mountains and there was a little haze which promised to burn off as the sun rose above the mountains.

Breakfast was early then we headed off in the bus towards Venice. I was fascinated by the countryside, especially in the bright sunlight, and spent most of the time staring out of the window. Most of the Autostrada (the equivalent of motorways) we travelled on have two lanes and the crash barriers are on both sides and quite high. It made me feel we were on some kind of track and that the driver didn’t really need to steer.

We approached Venice over a narrow bridge carrying road and rail and parked in the port, not far from a gigantic cruise liner. We took a ferry down the Canale della Guidecca to land just east of St Marks Square. The sun was strong and hot but I didn’t find it oppressive. We were led over four small bridges to St Marks square, from where we made our way to the Gondola Stazione and a short Gondola trip through the back canals. Gondolas are traditionally made of around 280 pieces of wood of 8 different kinds. The left side of the Gondola is slightly longer than the right side and this, coupled with the flat bottom, makes the craft manoeuvrable by one person. The Gondolier has to go through 5 years of training, including two years apprenticeship plying back and forth across the wider canals before he (and there is now one woman) can navigate the smaller canals. We were transported along nearly silent canals around 2m wide.

This was magical for me. I loved the peaceful nature of the narrow canals once we’d left the crowds behind. I can recall the gentle lapping of the water up against the sides of the buildings as we glided along. The Gondolier’s paddle made no sound and the high buildings either side of the water removed almost all of the city’s sounds. Birds flew over head and I watched one clinging to the vertical brickwork on my left. Several times our Gondolier had to make sharp turns, which he made look easy, and he guided the boat without once accidentally hitting anything.

Then we emerged onto the Grand Canal and we got our first look at the Rialto bridge. We headed off down the busy main canal, like any city street, with taxis, buses and cargo boats all bustling along and after a few hundred metres we dived back into the tranquillity of the back canals before making our way through a maze of a route to the stazione.

We had booked a walking tour of the city so we made our way to the starting point and for the next 90 minutes, we strolled around the piazza and through the alleys before finally losing the guide as she made her way back to the start point. We followed what we thought was the right route and we managed to catch up again. Afterwards, we discovered we weren’t the only ones to get lost. We were getting peckish so we found a nice cafe with a decent menu. We sat outside and had pizza and coffee in the shade, watching the beautiful people stroll by.

After food we wandered for a bit, heading towards the Rialto bridge and the famous view down the Grand Canal. We had been told to watch out for pickpockets as we stopped to take photos. I’d emptied my wallet anyway so I wasn’t too worried but we weren’t bothered by anyone. We crossed the bridge and made our way along the north bank, with it’s myriad of waterside cafes, looking for one where we could have a drink. Most wouldn’t offer us a waterside table if we were only drinking but one and we sat down and sipped Bellini – a refreshing mix of sparkling white wine (Presecco) and peach puree. Ours was served with a strawberry split on the side of the glass and it was delicious and certainly refreshing in the afternoon sun. We sat back and enjoyed the experience. It was one of the highlights of the whole holiday for me.

It was time to make our way slowly back to the square and there was time to stop off to get an ice cream to eat on the way. The square was still crowded and the queue to get in to St Mark’s Basilica was no shorter. On our right, the Museo Civico Correr was once the site of San Geminanio, which was demolished to build the Ala Napoleonica, a palace for Napoleon, in 1814. Today, the museum sells advertising space on the outer walls and this hoarding looks completely out of place in the square. It uses fake pillars and windows to try and hide it but they aren’t aligned properly, so it just looks haphazard.

We met our tour rep at the point where traditionally public executions were held, just by the waterfront between two columns possibly looted from the Greeks, one supporting the winged lion of St Mark, the other a statue of St Teodore on an alligator. St Teodore is the saint that almost became the patron saint of Venice. Perhaps he should have picked a better animal to stand on and maybe then he would have had a square named after him.

We walked past the Doges Palace. The Doge (duke) was the traditional ruler of Venice who held office until he died. Ideally, this should have been from natural causes but more often than not he was murdered by the next in line. The palace had three jails. One below the waterline for the common criminals, one under the roof for noble prisoners (Casanove is said to have escaped from this jail) and a newer one across a small bridge over a lesser canal. This bridge (Ponti de Sospiri), was named by Lord Byron as the Bridge of Sighs as he imagined that criminals being condemned to death would see their last glimpse of the city from the bridge, and sigh.

We passed signs that all is not well in Venice. Two towers that could be seen from the waterfront were visibly leaning as a result of subsidence and must be a constant reminder to all who live and work there that Venice is built on soft ground in a lagoon of constantly shifting water.

I was tired after Venice but it was a contented tiredness. There was so much to see and think about that I knew I couldn’t take it all in and I would have to rely on the photographs and my journal to fill in the detail. But I remembered my promise to myself after the first few times I travelled – to make sure I saw things with my own eyes rather than from behind a camera.

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Italy I – Verona

8 days, 7 cities. It was always going to be a hectic, headlong rush around the northern part of a beautiful country, only having time to touch the surface. We acepted that as the price to pay for the chance to see a range of different places, to find the ones we’d like to return to spend more time in.

We left on Sunday from Cardiff airport for the two our flight to Bergamo, near Milan and set off for our first hotel, La Perla in Riva del Garda, which we reached at just after 12.30 am. Tired and numbed by travel, we collapsed into bed.

Our first city was Verona. We had an easy morning, leaving on the coach at 11am for the 90 minute journey on the autostrada south. It was raining and this dampened our spirits a bit and there was the inevitable thoughts that this rain might persist. We pulled in to the coach park and were led by our tour rep the short distance to the piazza Bra.

This was our first experience of crossing Italian roads. There were black and white painted markings on the roads similar to zebra crossings, but the priority was all different. As far as I can tell (and this is from experience gathered over 7 days), traffic has priority unless you are brave enough to step on to the crossing, when the priority shifts to the pedestrian, unless the pedestrian hesitates, when it returns to the traffic. Thus the priority can shift several times during the several seconds of a crossing experience. It’s the new extreme sport.

The piazza Bra is dominated by the giant Roman amphitheatre (or ‘ampy theatre’ as our tour rep kept calling it). It’s the third largest in the world and it should have impressed straight away but the rain, the extensive metal fencing around it and the large chunks of stage scenery piled up outside took much of the impact away. The amp… sorry, amphitheatre is now used to stage operas and one was being prepared for that morning. An interesting comment on the times is that when in use for its original purpose, the amphitheatre could hold the entire population of Verona – 30,000 people. Now, thanks to health and safety, it can only hold 15,000 despite it’s actual capacity not having changed. For a schoolboy giggle style fact, the entrances to amphitheatres are called are called Vomitoria.

We were set free from the tour rep to explore for ourselves with a small photocopied map annotated with handwritten notes, crossings out and a large ring around the meeting place for the journey back to the hotel. We set off in the rain to walk the main shopping street. the pavement was polished stone and quite slippery in the damp. The street was busy and it was hard to get any sense of where we were or what we were seeing.

But then I looked up, above the eye line and over the heads of the tourists and there was something special. The architecture, hidden at ground level by the need to sell, was present above the shops. Tall, narrow windows with wooden slatted shutters, tiny balconies with colourful flowers in pots, the yellow plaster that I had seen in pictures, crumbling and cracked in places. For me, it changed they way I was feeling and the rain, still unwelcome, wasn’t quite so bad.

We carried on, heading towards Casa di Guilietta, where Juliet’s balcony (‘wherefore art thou, Juliet..’) can be found. Except Shakespeare’s story, based on earlier stories by Luigi da Porto and others, is fictional. Nevertheless, the balcony has attracted a connection to the story (only the most cynical would say it was a clever tourist-related ploy) and in its own way, is worshipped by young lovers who come here to scrawl their undying affection in marker pen on the walls of the alley way into the courtyard. There is also a tradition, fairly recent, of attaching padlocks adorned with the lovers names to anything suitable. We saw hundreds attached to railings there and in other places in the city.

From there, we decided to find somewhere to eat. Further along the street, we came to a small market place and there was a street cafe with large awnings and we decided to eat there. Carefully choosing seats to avoid the drips from the awning, we ordered coffee and food. I had an Americano and a cheese and ham pannini. Sat down and with no pressure to do anything, the atmosphere changed for me and I began to enjoy, despite the rain. It felt good sitting sipping coffee without having to rush.

By the time we’d finished, the rain had stopped. I felt my spirits lift. We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering, with no definite plan of where to go. It was by far the best way to do things and suddenly we were away from the tourists and the crowds and we could enjoy the narrow streets and some sense of history.

We went over to the Castelvecchio, built in 1347; a red brick fortress that didn’t look capable of defending against even a half determined attack. Indeed, it was built originally as a home rather than a defensive structure. Then we walked back through the back streets, eventually emerging behind the amphitheatre where all the staging for the opera was being stored. There were huge sculptures of lions and columns which were totally out of place against the magnificent ruins they obscured.

We got back to the coach after putting in our newly practised road crossing skills and headed back up the autostrada for dinner in the hotel. Then we sat out on the balcony of our room, enjoying the warm evening, the views of Monte Camplone (1,977m) and Monte Cadria (2,254m), the white walled ‘bastione’ on the mountain side and a fine bottle of red wine. As the darkness fell, we watched the stars come out and spotted a shrine, lit up on the side of the mountain. It was a lovely end to the day.

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Just a quick blog on the penultimate day of our adventure in Italy. Apart from Monday morning, the weather has been gorgeous. Almost too hot, except that the cafes all have sun shades and all seem to be placed to take advantage of the slightest breeze.

Our tick list of towns and cities is: Verona, Venice, Florence, San Gimignano, Siena and Assissi. We’ve just got back from a walk from the old spa town of Chianciano Terme to the new bit where our hotel is situated. We also stayed in Lake Garda, a beautiful setting for a hotel.

My favourites have been Venice (which is growing on me hour by hour as it was a lot to take in on the day), San Gimignano, a beautiful and quiet hilltop town which managed to retain its character, and Assissi, which we visited today and which also retained character despite many tourists.

Rome tomorrow – it promises to be a hectic and tiring day. Then a very early transfer to the airport on Sunday.

No photos – too many to go through. Full match report when I’ve recovered from the holiday.

Packing and Spam

This blog was originally going to be about packing for a forth coming trip. We’re off to Italy in a few days and I pride myself in being able to travel light. I like travelling light, it makes me feel more independent. When we went to Iceland, it was easy. I knew it would be cold so I packed my cold weather gear and base layer T shirts took the sweat, meaning I only had to have one or two fleeces. There was room to hide a small mammal in my bag. But the weather forecast for Italy is unclear. Hot, cold, wet or dry? We are also going for longer and the upshot of all this is a clothing dilemma the likes of which I have not encountered before.

Add to that the nightmare that is packing to avoid creases (not an issue with bulky fleeces and thick jackets) and you see I have a problem. How many shirts for the time I’m away? I prefer shirts to sweatshirts for hot climates). How many pairs of trousers? How many pairs of socks? I finally packed this evening with what I think I need and had to run out of the room as the case was threatening to explode. As I type, I wait for the bang.

Anyway, packing dilemmas aside, I found that when I logged on to type the blog, I had five new comments. I like reading comments; it means I’ve done something that someone else likes and that’s always nice to know. And I like to read people’s opinions. But these 5 comments were from people with unusual names made up of lots of random characters and grammatical symbols. Whatever happened to traditional names like John and Jane? And they were, quite frankly, nonsense.

Such is spam.

I don’t get the point. Why does someone want me to publish “I have coming across your site and it is being excellent. I particularly liking the last section, which is powerful. I think you could increasing your traffic through with just a tweaking of using this site is for greater sales.” Or something like that. WordPress does a good job of filtering then out (thank you WordPress) and I like to think I have the capability to recognise the spam from the genuine. So, no! I’m not interested in linking to your dubious site just to get extra hits. I may not have tens of thousands of visits, but the ones I get I value a lot.

Thank you for visiting my site, genuine people.

Nor will I cash your Bank Of Nigeria cheque, buy goods for you and take over-payment in return, confirm my log in details to my Santander account (because I don’t have a Santander account). I won’t be giving you my address so you can deliver a special package which will cost me $1.50 a day if I don’t arrange for its delivery. You can’t fix my PC with remote access because there is nothing wrong with my PC and if you ring me up to cold call me, you are breaking UK law because I am registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

Gosh – that might have been a mini rant. I apologise.

No photos. Therefore, anything below this is unpaid for advertising.