Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Italian postscript: dogs

We saw this sign often.
But the dogs were usually inside.

While we were walking in Tuscany we passed a paddock with a flock of sheep. Just like a number of others, but in this case four "sheep" detached themselves from the flock and raced towards us barking savagely. These were Maremma sheepdogs, specially bred to live with the sheep and protect them from wolves, or Australian tourists.

As they rushed up to gate I thought we would just pass by ignoring them ("They'll never come through the gate"). Hah! Two stayed with the flock and the two others wriggled under the gate and advanced, snarling. Now my dear wife is not too good with dogs (or indeed most things that go on four legs ands are bigger than a tortoise), so she went pale and walked steadily away while I turned to face the dogs, suggesting as politely as I could that they should leave, and poking my walking stick at them. They followed us for 50m or so, then broke off went back into the paddock and rushed up to the top gate to check that we weren't planning to double back and steal a few of their charges, like true Australian swagmen.

After that we payed more attention to the "Attenti al Cane" signs and I had some difficulty in coaxing Jeannie down one road that was marked with that sign.

Getting braver.

Not too rash, now.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities: Florence & Rome

This Italian series needs to be wound up, as indeed the whole trip has now wound up; I am writing this back in lovely Kingston Beach where the sky is blue and the air is pure.

After the peaceful byways of Tuscany and Umbria, Orvieto seemed terribly busy on a Sunday afternoon, but as soon as we arrived in Florence (by train) we realised that we had not until then seen anything that would classify as a real crowd. It was, to use the Scots word, fair hoaching with people, many of them in tour groups, following their leaders, who held up a variety of signs and symbols to distinguish their group from everyone else's. And it was so NOISY; the ambulances had particularly loud sirens, especially when confined in narrow streets, and they were on the move all the time (presumably collecting the remains of pedestrians who tried to cross the road).

The duomo in Florence.
Not so busy.

Florence from the Bardini Gardens.

The old centre of Florence is easy to walk around and it all revolves around the huge dome of the duomo with Giotto's bell tower alongside it. But if you want to see the art treasures in the Uffizi gallery or David in the Galleria dell'Accademia you have to be prepared to queue, or get tickets in advance. We queued for David (less than an hour) but even our pre-booked tickets for the Uffizi didn't eliminate the queue, it was just a whole lot shorter than the regular entrance one.

The Ponte Vecchia.
Note the enclosed corridor that took the Medici big wigs from their Uffizi to the palace, a kilometre away across the river, so that they didn't have to mix with the common folk.

Rondels at the Spedale degli Innocenti (1498).
The orphans hospital.

I was surprised by my reaction to seeing many of the iconic works of art; not many of them really stopped me in my tracks, perhaps because the images were so familiar, or perhaps because it was hard to filter them out from the throngs of people. It was often the unfamiliar or unexpected objects that had greater impact than the famous pieces, and these were sometimes in the quieter churches or museums. So Fra Angelico's Annunciation for us had much more impact than the famous Botticelli works (Primavera and the Birth of Venus), though walking up to David between the rows of Michaelagelo's uncompleted works was undeniably impressive.

Climbing the dome of the duomo was an experience; how did they do all that back in the 13th century? We went up on our last day in Florence and it was good to be able to pick out all the places we had visited. We also appreciated the fly-by of a Peregrine Falcon that was apparently nesting in Giotto's bell tower next door!

Climbing the dome.
450-odd steps between the inner and outer domes.

Thanks, Laura, for enhancing my experience.

Frescoes inside the dome.
They don't rate highly in the fresco stakes, apparently.

Giotto's tower from the top of the dome.

We went from Florence to Rome by Eurostar train: very smooth and very fast, and found our way quite easily to our apartment, not far from the Spanish Steps, using the metro. It took a while to get in contact with the agents, but eventually Constanza turned up (on her scooter, of course) and let us into a little third floor apartment with the smallest bathroom in the world. From there we made our excursions into bustling Rome, returning in the late afternoons for antipasti and a drink, and to catch the arrivo of the day's stage of the Giro d'Italia.

Jeannie finding refuge in busy Florence station.

Seriously cool trains in Italy.

Via Zuchelli, view from our apartment.

Across the road was a depot for the city cleansing department. They finished late and started early.

Rome's smallest bathroom.

The shower wasn't quite in the toilet.

All ready for an exciting stage finish in the Giro d'Italia.

Although there were huge numbers of tourists we got more of an impression of being in a working city than we did in Florence. The drivers hurtling down the streets were clearly locals and it took us a while to brave a road crossing at anywhere else but the lights. Ordinary pedestrian crossings are generally faintly marked, and that reflects the attitude of drivers to them. One guide book said that the safest way to cross was with a group of nuns, but we learned to walk boldly, face down the oncoming drivers, never stop and get used to their very short stopping distances.

Must be Rome: that's me at the Trevi Fountain.

I saved my coins for more gelato.

The dome of the Pantheon.

Built in the 1st century AD. That's a hole in the top, not a window.

The Roman forum and associated temples.

The Coliseum.

Popular, but the scene of an awful lot of human misery.

Roman street artist.

I thought this one was worth a Euro.

Six days didn't give us nearly enough time to see and do all that Rome has to offer. You could spend all that time in the Vatican Museum for a start. We spent a full day there, getting in after an hour and half of queuing. There are several potential routes through the vast collection, all leading to the Sistine Chapel eventually, but we saw many beautiful things en route, such as a collection the Faberge Easter eggs that the Romanov family gave each other; exquisite is the appropriate word. We also wanted to see the Etruscan collection, having been poking around in their tombs back in Tuscany, and there were the unexpected surprises such as a lovely little pieta by Van Gogh that I have never seen reproduced anywhere. But for me the day's highlight was next door in St Peters: Michaelangelo's pieta that portrays Mary as a young girl.

Faberge egg, given as an Easter present to one of the Romanov tsars.

The carriage fits inside.

Michaelangelo's Pieta in St Peters.

Some distance away, and behind glass, but still most affecting.

Pieta by Van Gogh in the Vatican Museum.

The "Map Corridor" on the way to the Sistine Chapel.

Etruscan shields in the Vatican Museum.

And then there were all the antiquities. The forums and the Coliseum were much as expected (and when you think about it, the Coliseum is really rather nasty), but the Pantheon was magnificent. And a real surprise was the archaeological site at Ostia Antica, the old port at what was once the mouth of the Tiber. The town was abandoned in the Third Century and became covered in river silt until it began to be excavated in the 1800s. Now it is comparable with Pompeii and Herculaneum for its preservation as an intact Roman town. It was fascinating to walk down the streets and to be able to identify shops, warehouses, a bar, an amphitheatre, underground Mithraic temple etc, in a site that covers more than 30 hectares. And it wasn't very busy, apart from numerous local school groups; it would have been a perfect day out but for the steady stream of aircraft flying low overhead to land at Fiumicino.

The amphitheatre at Ostia Antica.

The lower seats still have their marble covering.

Mosaic on the floor of a shipping agent's office, Ostia Antica.

There were a whole lot of these around a square behind the amphitheatre.

Mithraeum, Ostia Antica.

The Mithraic cult was widespread in Roman times.

Ancient trattoria, Ostia Antica.

Wonderfully preserved: marble bar and counters, wall paintings of food.

Roman barmaid.

Not an original, I think.

The most intimate places still preserved.

It works, too (but the seat was very cold!)

Gastronomically, we did better in Florence than in Rome, mostly because it was hard to get out of Tourist Land in the latter. But on our last night we finally took up Costanza's suggestion of a place in Trastevere, across the river, and had a fine meal. We were squeezed in at 8.00 when it opened, and when we left there were 20 people waiting for a table. The food was simple but delicious, and I wish I had tried the deep-fried artichokes that our neighbour had, and described as "spectacular".

Ahh! Gelato. So good.

And so we left Italy. Our trip wasn't quite over, however. We had a few days with Jean's sister in Suffolk and finished up with a couple more days chasing birds in north Norfolk, where we ran into a couple who had been with us on the Morocco tour. The weather had been very good throughout the trip (rainjackets twice in 10 weeks), but as we drove to Heathrow there was heavy rain, which at least meant that we could leave with a little less regret.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hidden Italy

Hidden Italy is the name of the Australian-based company that organised the five day walk through the Italian countryside that we have just completed, and the name is a good one since we visited places well off the tourist routes; in fact in five days walking we met just two other people on the tracks, and they were just before an archaeological site.

This is our first visit to Italy and it got off to a wonderful start. We were met at Rome airport by Luigi, the driver who was to move our bags from hotel to hotel as we walked. Although he had almost no English (neatly matching our level of Italian), we discovered that he was 72, used to run a garage, has travelled all over Italy by motorbike, details of his family etc etc. While this was going on Luigi was hurling a rather nice Mercedes down motorways, main roads and very narrow country roads at speeds that made me just want to look away.

But needless to say we arrived unharmed at the little hilltop town of Pitigliano. And what an arrival! Without warning we came round a sharp bend and there was the town perched on cliffs just across a deep valley. Definitely an "Oh wow!" moment. It is a classic little medieval Italian town with a castle, narrow little lanes, a Jewish ghetto and everywhere fantastic views as you came to the edge of the cliffs. Our hotel was right on the edge, and from our room window there was a drop of 100m or more. We strolled the town with mouths agape, and met no one but locals, sitting around in the sun talking at the volume level that most Italians seems to use.

Pitigliano, growing out of the rock.
View from our bedroom window (if you leaned out a bit).

The area we were in ("La Tuscia") is in the far south of Tuscany, and we finished our walk in Umbria, having passed briefly into Lazio on the way. La Tuscia refers to the Etruscans who, 2500 or so years ago, were well established here, taking advantage of the landscape and geology to establish their towns and cities. The whole area is made of volcanic ash (tufa) which forms a soft rock that rivers cut through easily, leaving the steep-sided hilltops that lend themselves so well to fortified towns. And the rock is easy to excavate too, to extract building stone but also to dig caves and tunnels. The whole place is riddled with caves and tunnels, many of which have been co-opted by the locals for wine cellars, wood sheds, stables and general storage.

The Etruscans also created extensive burial sites: underground tombs with surface temple-like decorations. Sadly, many of the tombs were ransacked in the 19th century (often by English "antiquarians") and the tufa has weathered so the decorations are hard to see, but you can still get an idea of what it was like. Most spectacular today are the "vie cave"; roads that the Etruscans cut deep into the tufa, sometimes 10 or 20m deep, and in places so narrow that two people can hardly pass. Their function is a little unclear, perhaps defensive, or ceremonial, but from our point of view delightfully cool tracks through the landscape, because our walk took us down several of them.

Etruscan via cava.
Note the drainage channel at the side.

Etruscan cave dwelling.
Or tomb (hard to know at 2500 years range).

Etruscan tomb.
Two millenia are tough on soft rock, but you get the idea.

And we were here to walk. Each days we had a map and a set of directions to take from one place to the next, and we started from Pitigliano down a via cava on our way to the first stop in Sovano. I have to say that my impression of Tuscany had been of rolling hills covered with vineyards, golden corn, statuesque cedars and the occasional terra cotta covered farmhouse. Well that might be true elsewhere, but La Tuscia is quite a heavily wooded landscape, and much of our walk was in beautiful woodland: oak, hornbeam and hazel, with plants such as cyclamen, hellebore and solomon's seal on the ground. Not what we had expected, but very pleasant to walk through.

On the La Tuscia track.
Much of the walk was in woodland like this.

And some was on real Roman road!

But there was always time for lunch.
The pecorino sheep's cheese was lovely.

First stop was in Sovano, a tiny village on another hilltop, with a fine Etruscan necropolis just down the hill. Then to Sorano, on its hilltop. We got a bit bushed as we arrived there, thanks to some recent earthworks on the track. After a few iterations we found ourselves back on track, but with a steep climb up to our hotel, which was in the fortress at the very top! But after a shower and a rest, what a wonderful place! We had one of our best meals here, but only after we had found the ristorante. "It's easy to find" said the hotel man, so my attention wandered...... After many little alleys and stairs we gave up and asked a local lady, who kindly took us and pointed us in the right direction. We were the only people in the place, and beside our table a tunnel led away into the rock; their wine cellar, but connected to tunnels that went right back up to the castle. We had a tasting menu of local dishes; this isn't a food blog, but they were very good.

Tiny Sovano.
Note the crush of tourists.

The Merli Gate into Sorano.
Just a little forbidding.

Now where's that trattoria?
We missed this sign.

Down there? Really?
But the food was great.

And so to San Quirico, then to Bolsena (a long walk, that one: 21km) on Lake Bolsena, which lies in one of the huge volcanic craters that produced all that tufa. Our last day was to take us from Bolsena to Orvieto, and it was another long walk. We realised that since we were leaving Orvieto at 10.00 the following day we would have very little time to see the city, so we cheated a little and got Luigi to drive us a bit over halfway there, giving us the afternoon to explore the city. In the event, we got a bit lost and didn't arrive quite as promptly as we should have, but we still saw some of the town.

Orvieto was the biggest town we visited, and it's dominated by the huge duomo, the cathedral built to house an altar cloth supposed to have been stained by blood that miraculously fell from the communion bread a long time ago. The cathedral front is an astounding mix of statuary and mosaic, and inside, one side chapel is entirely decorated by frescoes by Fra Angelico and Signorelli that pre-date and influenced the Sistine Chapel.

Lake Bolsena.
It was a long way down into this ancient crater.

Our last Etruscan hilltop town: Orvieto.
We had to go down and up to get there!

We ate well in Orvieto too; think ravioli stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a black truffle sauce, and a wonderful escallope of veal with an artichoke sauce. I was trying to find out how to ask for a receipt in my iPhone phrase book when I pressed the wrong button and it spoke the phrase. The waiter was delighted ("Mr Computer") and gave us a tour of their wine cellars deep into the rock.

The duomo in Orvieto.
The front was amazingly decorated.

We could have stayed longer is almost all the places we visited, especially Orvieto, but we had an itinerary to keep to, and here we are in Florence. What a contrast to the La Tuscia countryside! But more of that later.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Italian Teaser

We've been in Italy for almost a week, but wifi is hard to find (probably non-existent) in the little villages we've been staying in around the Tuscany/Umbria border. But here's a teaser.

View from our hotel window, Sovano.
And the hotel was in the fortress!

Florence tomorrow, and then Rome. Surely should have wifi there, so watch this space.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

North and South

This comes from a hotel room at Heathrow airport. We've just driven down from Yorkshire on a Bank Holiday Monday, so this is kinda therapy. (Actually, the drive was surprisingly easy: no hold-ups anywhere, but whizzing along at 120 kph with all that other hardware seems to be more stressful these days).

So it's nice to be able to dwell instead on the past couple of weeks and our experiences in the North and South (see Elizabeth Gaskell). Maybe the first thing to say is that the weather has been exceptional: no rainjacket since our first day in Cornwall!

From Cornwall we travelled not far north to Somerset, to stay for a few days at Parsonage Farm in the tiny village of Over Stowey on the edge of the Quantock Hills. I've blogged Parsonage Farm before, so suffice to say that it's a gorgeous place and we enjoyed walking on the hills and eating in the pubs. But we never saw a Lesser Spotted (hardly ever spotted) Woodpecker!

Jeannie explaining to orphan lambs that she has no food for them.

Tea in the garden at Parsonage Farm.

We met up with Jim and Cheryl Wilson for a night (see their Marvellous Adventures blog) and then committed ourselves to the bosom of the M5 and M6 to be whirled up north to my sister's near Bolton, Lancashire. Now you may not be aware that this country, as well as its well-established class structure, has an even deeper north-south divide than Tasmania! Probably even before Elizabeth Gaskell, southerners thought the north was populated by clog-wearing labourers with laughable accents, while the northerners believed the other half to be effete aristocrats busily grinding the faces of the poor. And there's still more than a bit of that, but our experience (as southerners originally) is that the north is full of lovely people who smile at you in the street and stop their cars to ask whether you are lost. That don't happen in London!

With Kate and Chris we visited a couple of stately homes and gardens, marvelling at the vast numbers of people who come to enjoy them. We also got to meet our very new grand-niece, Sophie: a real little charmer.

Tatton Park being enjoyed by the crowds.

Kate & Chris on the steps of the church where they were married 34 years ago, to the day.

Jeannie and our nephew Robert, the Boy from Bolton.

Grand-niece Sophie.
Why is that man making funny faces at me?

Family group, Andrea is the only one you haven't met already.

Our final stay in the north was in the North York Moors national park, an area that I've never been to before, but which Jeannie visited as a student. We stayed in a B&B at Kirkbymoorside (good names up there) and since the weather was so good we bought a book of walks and did one each of our four days. It's lovely country: deep valleys with stone walls and very white sheep in very green fields and then miles of open heather moorland on the ridges (or "riggs" locally). Just made for walking, and many people do; at every stop we would see people putting on walking boots and shouldering packs. We met plenty of people on the tracks and one pub offered covers for muddy boots at the door!

The Cornmill, Kirkbymoorside.
The mill leat still runs under the dining room floor.

North York Moors.
Quite steep!

Green grass, white sheep.
The word is "bucolic".

Intrepid walker.
Italy? Bring it on!

Next stop: Italy, and some more walking. Watch this space (but don't forget to breathe, dunno when I'll get wifi next).

What's that? Wedding......? Did someone get married? (OK, we admit it. We stayed in and watched)