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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