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 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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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.