Two wheels around Mandello del Lario

Found it at last – that magic spot, that feeling of contentment and fulfilment, that place which ticks all the boxes and makes all that effort and expense of travelling really worthwhile. There were times when the sheer popularity of Lake Como as a tourist destination was going to swamp any holiday dreams or blissful summer expectations. That was until the right inner thigh of the laked athlete figure (I now think Lake Como is like an athlete with raised hands above the head) and a final base at Mandello del Lario.

Yes, arrival day was a surprise with 60,000 bikers celebrating a motor bike convention but as the week went, it became apparent that this contributes to the character and charm of the place. Nothing too precious here.

Sitting out on the balcony, wine in hand, looking out across the lake, the silence, once the bikers had left admittedly, is enhanced with a very faint hum of motorbikes leaving the distant tunnel, two donkeys braying at each other across the town, the lunch siren of the factory and the church bells giving out their respective information, a few isolated doggy barks….and that’s it. Mandello is the home of the Moto Guzzi factory where for over 100 years iconic motor bikes have been produced for racing.

So the town is a manufacturing centre and accordingly a pretty ordinary kind of place with a railway line to Milan and inhabited by normal folk – commuters, factory workers, designers, service personnel & even Amazon drivers. So refreshing.


On the other side of the railway tracks, clustered on the lakeside, lies the old town. Narrow lanes lined with elegant villas and ornate, railinged gardens and gates head down to the water where converted fishing homes clutter around small beaches where a couple of covered boats are drawn up for the winter.

Wandering around its calm, lakeside streets in the fresh morning air or in the cool of the evening, is a pure joy. A few locals gossip easily on benches or over a glass of vino at a cafe. Wide arches and covered promenades lead from squares and through passageways between tall, multi-storied buildings, the still waters of the lake always providing a blue-skied, glass-covered backdrop. Tables are laid out in one square or another, one always available for food. Mama Ciccia has a few tables, a simple but interesting menu and carafes of excellent house wine. A clear favourite.

Although happy to while away time here, we did leave Mandello. I won’t go into the aborted trip to Bergamo. It looked magnificent from below and a fortress from a distance. However, exploring the rocky spine of the inner thighed peninsula of the lake was fascinating – wood-contained pastures, narrow winding roads, more pretty lakeside (and mountain) villages.

The gem on the route was the hill of Madonna del Ghisallo with its dramatic views over the lake which has long been an iconic location for cyclists of all ages and abilities. A museum at the top captures the Italians’ passion for such extreme racing.

Not only has the awesomely steep 10 km climb formed a stage in some of Italy’s most famous road races but generations of amateur cyclists ride up it for fun!!! An amazing feat. Not for me, thank you. I’ll appreciate it from the museum and 17th century chapel at the top.


I’ll pack the cool, pastel-lined streets of Mandello del Lario and images of Lake Como into my bag, take them home and appreciate them over cooler winter months.

Bye for now 🙂

A break from it all on Lake Como

The east side of Lake Como and the right bank down to Lecco, provides a calm relief from the bustling crowds, the palaces and villas of the rich and famous and the loud, brash American tour parties of the western side/leg. Surely, this will be the real Italy. The first indication that this is a different place can be found on the route south. There are two roads. Signage seems to always lead to the main, dual carriageway that runs alongside the railway line through, in many cases literally, the mountains and roughly following the shoreline. When it comes to some obstacle, a headland or a hard fold of rock, it simply drills down through in a dark, dimly lit, exhaust-hazed tunnel, the home of some ghoulish, worming creature that takes away any beauty the area has to offer. The longest distance you are cut off from the world is over 5 km.

However, be resourceful, use your instinct and you will be rewarded. Just outside Colico a narrow lane cuts through a scruffy site of caravans and old chalets and hits the lakeside. From here it runs quietly south to Lecco at the bottom, right beside the water, passing through delightful old fishing villages, some vaguely attractive holiday sprawl and runs of bars & restaurants. Traffic on this road is sensible, gently pacing itself around 40kph. Driving is a pleasure and stopping has it rewards.

The first temptation is a sign off to Abbazia di Piona, a cobbled lane leads for several bumpy kilometres down to the lakeside. The abbey is gloriously set in peaceful, isolated splendour on the water’s edge amongst tall mountain peaks. To go inside, appropriate clothing is requested.

Bellano on the ferry route from Como. Despite this it is able to maintain a calm atmosphere and is an attractive place to spend a few days.

Varenna is also on the ferry route. Being that much closer to Bellagio is takes on some of the characteristics of this tourist hotspot.

However the crowds are smaller and visitors are quick to return further south.

Mandello del Lario is our base for this leg. Imagine the horror when we discover that our arrival coincided with the penultimate day of a motorbike convention – faint echoes of literally thousands of bikes floated up from the village below, along with the bikers’ distant appreciation of an AC/DC cover band sounding a bit like Suzie Quatro. Venturing in, we spied columns of parked bikes and straggles of greyed, worker ants overcoming the roads & pavements. We left to observe from afar. When they were gone we discovered this wonderful, peaceful place – the real Lake Como!

Lecco is an ordinary, commercial town at the foot of the lake with an attractive promenade by the water’s edge. In an attempt to get away from our biker friends we took the road to Lecco, only to find many of them on their way home and parked up there. We left quickly, to enjoy the now empty streets of Mandello.

The other side to Lake Como

Bellagio, at the groin area of the lake, and Lago di Mezzalo, which forms the neck & head of our striding figure, sum up contrasting aspects of Lake Como. The former is one place amongst many, the latter is uniquely special in this rich man’s, & woman’s, playground. They are like the rough & the smooth, the rich & the poor (though which is which you’ll have to decide at the end), the fact and the fiction.


The journey to each is a contrasting challenge in itself. Hitting the high speed ferry, Bellagio is one hour south of Domaso (as opposed to the slow one which takes an hour longer to complete more zigzags down the lake).


Bellagio is stunningly beautiful with high end cafes, high end hotels, high end eateries, high end villas & gardens & begonia-forested planters & cobbled steps.

Everyone seems to be wearing high end labels, dressed to kill and impress with high heels and swinging carrier bags, elegant suits & slits showing off beautifully tanned & toned flesh. Visitors compete in short, shorter shorts, flimsy lacey numbers, slippy T shirts & floppy flips and fail at every level. Boatloads of loud, large (in number and, mostly, in size), presumably affluent, Americans troop onto jetties and are led off to be fed prosciutto & melon, pasta and an Italian dessert and to purchase some expensive local tat. Other visitors wander the streets, savouring wine or lunch or cake, or all of them, before joining a melee of a queue at the stazione to somewhere else on the lake.


The place is hugely picturesque and photogenic, especially looking out across the lake under a blue, blue sky, taking in the varnished launches, the crossing ferries, a steam boat, the water taxis and small car ferries to appreciate the grand buildings and villages backed by mountain peaks and jutting headlands on the other side.

Lago di Mezzola is a wetland area at the top of the lake, best reached by car. One side can be accessed before the bridge crossing a narrow channel of mountain water and the other by using the bridge and taking the road to Switzerland.

There is a settlement on each bank composed of old fishing dwellings and holiday accommodation – chalets, caravans, apartments.

There is nothing grand or imposing, except maybe the proximity of the mountains ahead – just peace, calm, contentment.


This is hiking territory plus off road tracks for cycling. No-one is in a hurry. Indeed the campsite opened up its cafe specially to serve drinks. The water side is serenely peaceful, taking breath away with a hush of leaves, its sleepy solitude, balancing trout and softly-gliding waterbirds.


Bellagio or Lago di Mezzola?
Groin or head? These days, the head always wins for me!

Messing about on Lake Como

Lake Como is shaped like a tall armless runner, striding out across the foothills of the Alps. The ordinary village of Domeso lies on the west bank near the top of the body of the lake. To reach it requires a drive up the west bank of the left leg.

The differences with Lake Maggiore are quite striking. Como is narrower. The cotton wool clumps of bulging woods still close down along the water in the same way, but they reach up way higher giving way to proper, rocked mountains behind, like the teeth of lines of saws backed with layers upon layers of rising peaks and ridges.

Settlements do not really spread up into the foothills so much but wedge themselves against the lake, presenting the broad face of a triangle to the water and running away up narrowing, high valleys between folding layers of land.


Driving alongside the lake is just beautiful, looking across calm waters dotted with the wakes of criss crossing ferries or private launches to distanced villages clinging tightly onto the edge. The road narrows to a single shaded passage between high rendered facades as it passes through old villages which open to reveal a centre of restaurants and bars around a simple harbour before entering yet another spread of uninspiring suburban landscape. The original road follows every promontory and bay between villages but progress has come to the aid of the weary traveller by cutting through the sticky-out-bits in dark, badly lit tunnels filled with the trapped fumes of exhausting traffic. It takes time off the journey but adds nothing to the quality of the journey.

The more opulent resorts with their majestic hotels, grand palaces & galleries, with their mahogany launches & fine-dining restaurants and their uniformed staff and status Ferrari’s, tend to be situated at the southern end of the lake within easy access of the Milanese wealthy.


Tremezzo is a strip of classy real estate near the groin area of our figure.

D


Menaggio is a bustling resort a few villages up. Bustling but still calm, genteel & sophisticated.

Where is George Clooney’s place?
Exploring the lakeside, whether it’s the classy spots or the more mundane, suburban sprawl around the old fishing settlements, is best done on the ferries or by bus – the C10 route. The advantage with a car is you can stop in any village or roadside hotel/bar/restaurant you want, the disadvantage is the gamble you take with finding a parking space.

Taking the 200 ferry up Lake Maggiore to Locarno

This is a real time blog. The engines of the 208 steamer service from Stresa to Locarno, at the top of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland, are throbbing beneath my red plastic chair on the low back deck where I can capture a few rays. Time 5.30pm. This is the return leg. Came up this morning having captured a position on the top deck for a great view of the lakeside and the backdrop of rising Alpine peaks and cloud formations that take the imagination on a journey of dreams through a suggestion of gorges and hazy ravines, overwhelmed by cotton wool ghosts & ghouls.


Looking over to the starboard bank (I think), the green-wooded bubbles of foliage and forest cover the hills and soft peaks that lead away to distant mountains. Dwellings, individually or in clusters large & small, salt & pepper both banks, faithfully following the contours around the hillsides or running in zig-zags diagonally through the green-leaved fluff of the growing slopes or winding in scars like huge helter-skelters.


Close up, little remains of the original lakeside settlements. A nucleus of cobbled streets around a proud spire of church or chapel is all that remains of past fishing communities. Firstly wealthy folk built their holiday villas at the water’s edge, then hotels & apartments went up from the centre and now modern shapes and lines dominate the hills around every hamlet & village, aiding the spread of mass tourism. In the Italian way, a grand hotel dominates a village beach with furled umbrellas & folded sunbeds for hire, thus preventing any hoipoloi, Tom, Dick or Marco from enjoying the sand.

Cannobio is an exception to all of the above. Almost the last stop before Switzerland, first impressions are not good. It’s market day and a line of white vans line the quayside, hiding magnificent buildings with tarpaulins, rails of hanging cardigans & sweaters (wool & cashmere), crates of winter socks and piles of sheets & bedding. Disembarking from the boat into this hubbub and scrum of calling traders, heated tourists, angst waiters, crying children is a real shock.

Narrow cobbled gulleys and stepped paths lead away from the water and up into the old village.

As the market finishes around two, it is a race out of town – to pack away stock, curl away the rain cover, and get onto the lakeside road – White Van Man Convoy. Like robots, two town cleaning vans move their way along the quay and the full glory that is the waterfront of Commodore is revealed. What do you think?

Exploring the Italian lakes – Stresa & Lake Maggiore

On the western bank of Lake Maggiore, Stresa started life as a small community of fishermen & peasants. Gradually it became a piece of prime real estate for the Milanese aristocracy who built palaces and gardens on the islands that lie offshore. With the arrival of the railways, Stresa itself became a popular holiday destination for the wealthy of Milan. Today, the imposing, impressive, multi-lit hotels along the front mix it up with fading apartment blocks behind, a jumble of cobbled streets containing bars, restaurants and the usual tourist tat, all that remains of the original fishing village.


In the winter the places closes up. In season, the hotels are filled with coachloads of slow-moving Americans, Brits & Germans, mostly grey-haired and rather loud. There is still room in the streets and the eateries for those of a younger disposition who are searching for a more local Italian experience.


At this end of Lake Maggiore everyone has to take a tour of the islands. In the 16th century the Borromeos, members of Milan’s aristocracy, bought land here and built palaces on the islands of Bella and Madre. Private tours to visit the grand buildings and impressive gardens are available at quite a cost. Or one can take the public ferry from the centre of town for a few euros and visit them all, plus a few mainland villages, from the water.

Isola Bella

Isola Pescatori

Isola Madre

Verbania/Pallanza

And the ferry back to Stresa

The streets of Palermo

Palermo has a different feel during the day when the sun bakes the city and the priority is to get the punters to spend money on the sights, on food and on drink and souvenirs. The main streets and piazzas are crowded with lines of hot, red-faced tourists following their leaders in slow, overheated processions moving from church to palace to chapel. Domes and steeples reach to the heavens drawing them in to their cool stone-lined interiors.

The main thoroughfares have been pedestrianised but are still are a real tussle to negotiate. Restaurants, bars, food outlets, have placed lines of small tables which have a constant turnover of clientele. The multitude of electric scooters skimming their way through the crowds just adds to the chaos.

Local life caries on up the side streets – the restaurants preparing for evening service, ‘the best gelato in Sicily’, the tourist tat shops, street markets with their grills and soups, tables balanced precariously to take account of the gradients. Umbrellas of all shapes and sizes provide shade to customers and passers-by.

As night falls it all quietens down a bit and the world starts to relax and gets less frantic.

As night falls the side streets and their communities come to life.

Emptied by the heat of the day, as the air cools the shutters are raised, the tables come out, the workshops and craft houses display their wares and the streets are taken over by a youthful, partisan, diverse community.

Laughter and love fill the air, views are exchanged, passions expressed. Wine and beer flow, tapas and street food served and the evening grabs you in a warm, comfortable embrace.

I love it.

Palermo’s Norman Palace and Palantine Chapel

The Royal Palace, also known as the Norman Palace, was built by the Normans who invaded Sicily in 1072 . These are the descendants of the same Normans that crossed to England with William the Conqueror to defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The former Islamic palace was chosen as their political centre and transformed into a royal residence and an administrative centre.

The Palantine Chapel was added in the 12th century.

It is a mix of Byzantine, Norman and Islamic architectural styles which reflects the impact of these cultural influences in Sicily at the time. It was commissioned by Roger II in 1132 and built on the site of an older chapel which now forms the crypt.

It took eight years to build and the mosaics were still unfinished in 1143.

Palermo’s cathedral, churches and chapels

Sicily lies at the crossroads of Western civilisation. Over thousands of years a myriad of empires and forces have occupied the island from Greeks & Romans, Byzantines & Arabs, Italians & French and left a permanent impression on its architecture, culture and religion. The island’s strategic position between Africa, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic gave it a crucial task to protect the southern flank of Catholic Italy. This is reflected in Palermo’s skyline where domes & spires & turrets & towers compete to protect the souls of rich and poor alike.

Palermo’s Duomo is a treasure of Norman architecture, built in 1184 as a reconverted Christian church on the site of a Muslim Mosque, which in turn was built on the site of a Christian basilica. Over the centuries the cathedral has blended numerous influences from the island’s history – Gothic, medieval, Arabic, neoclassical into one impressive place of worship reflecting its prominent position on the world stage.

The Piazza Bellini contains three churches. The Baroque church & monastery of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria is a prize for the tourist. The church itself is plastered in scenes from the bible.

Its monastery, the tranquillity of its shaded garden and cool corridors, provide a peace where monks could contemplate and oversee the prayers through high latticed walkways.

But the best is reached by narrow stairs past the original roof tiles and mortar, now covered with thick timbers and tiles and out onto narrow balconies providing a great vista of the domes and bell towers of Palermo’s churches, chapels and palaces.

Piazza Pretorio can be seen below with its dry fountain ready for action.

On the other side of the square are two churches, side by side. The small Church of San Cataldo, with its unusual red domes, was built as a chapel in a larger complex of buildings by Islamic workers in 1154. Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio, founded in 1140, was built as a private chapel.

Palermo’s tangle of dark streets and alleys hides so many churches and chapels, only given away by a shafted angle of sunlight that penetrates the clumps and lines of buildings to highlight a golden bell tower or an ancient pinnacled cross.

Glorious, magnificent Palermo

Palermo is a little rough around the edges but its narrow, shadow-ravined streets create an artichoke, each bract peeling away to reveal so many golden hearts. Yes, it is dusty, yes it is noisy and crowded, yes, the sun only reaches through the stone and mortar to bake the ground at midday but this place has character, has splendour, has a huge, strong pulse that sucks you in to appreciate a gallery of fading old masterpieces.

This Palermo reflects the main events of centuries of European history since biblical times, painted in its own hues and colours and boasting of its importance and influence.

The size and scale of the place is overwhelming. 4/5/6 storied buildings line every main street that crisscross the city. All are decorated in carvings of plaques or shields or plinthed statues or groping vines, plants, fluer-de-lys and tower above the pedestrianised routes, towering up to lord their power and position over the rest of us mere mortals.

Filling in between the axis of roads is a tangle of cobbled alleys and streets that have for centuries jumbled up together in a hotch potch of cultural, economic and religious communities. Around sharp corners and through carriage-sized gateways, piazzas, courtyards and squares reveal churches and cathedrals, palaces, mansions, galleries.

These contrast with the Old Town where, with outstretched arms, you can almost run your fingers along rough plastered, walls and lurch through the pot-holes and broken surfaces between narrow tenements. The graffiti is charming and informative and adds even more character to everyday life.

In these communities the piazzas are more like open parks with local bars and pizzerias around the edges where locals spend their time in the cool of the day doing their own thing.

Breakfast in Cefalu, Sicily

This quick week away to Sicily is an opportunity to regain the flavour of the Italy that I love – the culture, the history, the wine (oh the wine), the food, the sun, the history, the families, the gelatos, the coffee. Am doing it slightly differently this time – once I arrive all journeys will be by public transport … and feet. I can leave all that driving stress behind and just enjoy the place. Initial journeys from the airport to Palermo and beyond have been booked from home and safely stored on my phone. You can book journeys all over the world at any time, on Trainline.

Once through and collected bags, it is a 30 second walk to platform 2, where the first of several punctual train awaits. In Palemro Centrale it is a hop to platform 4 and the service to Cefalu.

Cefalu is an ancient fishing port sandwiched between the Mediterranean and a range of large craggy rocks on the north coast of Sicily to the east of Palermo. Fishing may be its roots but today it is a charming tourist resort, fashionable with affluent Italians, day visitors from Palermo and holiday makers seeking the real Sicily. The summer months see large numbers on the beach and in the streets. But now the sunbeds are empty, the restaurants living on hope rather than bookings and cafes & gelaterias serve you immediately you turn up. It means that the true peace and feel of the medieval town can be appreciated. The atmosphere, the history, the flavours ooze from every stone block, from every piece of cracking plaster, from every pigment.

Breakfast is taken in the Pazza Duomo. Slightly later than planned, a peal of bells signals the start of midday mass and for a moment disrupts the tables of coffee and gateaux. A few take the ancient steps, past the gate-guarding bishops, up and into the cathedral. The rest turn back to their table and watch another group of visitors pass through the narrow, cobbled streets.

The old town consists of a grid of tall apartment blocks, centuries old, linked by steep, stoned streets.

Balconies stretch across to touch their opposite number. Today is obviously a good washing day as lines of sheets and shirts wave to each other, dancing together in a drying partnership.

Cefalu is a joy to visit.

Ferrara, where the bicycle rules and not the tourist

So that is it. Home tomorrow. I leave you with images of Ferrara. There could be a lot worse places to leave you, and no, this is not where they make very flashy sports cars. This place is like a mini, fabulous Florence without a coach party in sight. In fact there are no cars in the centre to disrupt the seemingly endless flow of the bicycle. Many of the riders are particularly pleasing on the eye.

We hit gold with the hotel, for a start. A little bijou place on a central piazza, opposite the castle. Then the upgrade to a room with a small balcony looking directly onto the ancient Continue reading

Padua in the heat

OMG. What a shock to the senses. The last time I spoke to you I was in the peaceful tranquility of La Marche, alone with the farmland, the soaring buzzards, the pool and mama Anita’s cooking. I have come 250+ km north to Padua, a university city in the same mold as Oxford, established yonks ago but in comparison to the past two weeks so hot and busy and full of people and noise and bikes and trams and shops and gelatos. It is wonderful but such a shock to the system. Welcome back to reality and back-home normality. Oxford in a 34° heatwave. Enjoy the churches, the piazzas, the shade, when you can find it.

 

 

 

Eating out at Trattoria Anita

Eating out in Cupramontana gives you Gina’s, a pizza restaurant, Rosina’s a few miles out of town with a glorious terrace overlooking the surrounding hills & Ristorante La Orietta within the medieval, walled core of the town.

But I must spend some time telling you about the special delights of eating in Trattoria Anita. This can be found down a narrow, dark, cobbled street beside the butchers, under a totally inappropriate sign showing a golywog drinking a cup of coffee.

The first doorway is into the kitchen of open charcoal grills and steaming, aluminium pots & pans where three elderly, hunched mamas pirouette around each other in the space in the middle.


The second door is the entrance to a time capsule taking you back 70 years when it was OK to have signs like that hanging above your door. Four tables, covered in white tablecloths, covering red gingham, are positioned on each side of the narrow space, a counter, behind which are shelves of ancient, crusty bottles containing different coloured spirits, faces the entrance, a doorway that leads into the kitchen and a fridge unit holding two types of wine-white in loosely corked bottles and red in those old Corona clasped 1litre jobbies, about 20 of each.


Yes, we can eat. Papa, aged about 75, appears and shows us to a table. A bottle of gassed water and a bottle of white is dumped on the table. There follows 5 minutes of sign language with papa grumbling away in discontent, where we exchange these for still water(we get a bottle of tap, so we keep the fizzy) and a litre bottle of home-produced red, which is surprisingly good and has gone by the end of the evening.

No menu is immediately obvious. A 4th, younger lady, by that I mean later 40’s, who also speaks only Italian, appears at the table and gabbles through the premier platas. Recognising tortellini and ravioli we choose the former. Papa comes out of the kitchen with a tray of small curled pasta, covered in cream and parmesan and filled with cheese and bacon pieces, he serves us and retires, mumbling about something or other. The food is absolutely delicious.

Meanwhile the room is starting to fill up. Local Italian families take the tables in the room and get the same food as us. But hey, they keep coming. Two police officers, with guns, mother and child, pairs, threes, larger groups know their way to the hidden door which leads, via a single pointing finger to ‘upstairs’.

Papa has a problem. He appears with a piece of cotton wool protruding from a nostril, which doesn’t look good. As he returns from the door and showing some people upstairs, he gestures and the plug falls, to land, much to the surprise of the customers, on the table in front of him. They accept this invasion of their space and carry on eating as papa returns to the kitchen, never to be seen again.

His serving duties are taken over by mama. Mama is stooped with age yet skips around the joint, involved with everything. She explains, in a high, fluttery voice, the meats that are available for the secondi. Acorn Antiques comes to mind. She is lovely, breaking into a huge smile when ever a dish is complemented.

We spot the only menu, a hand written poster on the inside of the door, which helps us choose the rabbit (and that is what you get, cooked in oil, garlic & tomato-delicious) from the 4 available, all served with pots or tom gratin.


Dessert is the only slightly disappointing element of this wonderful, home-cooking experience so I’ll gloss over that as I don’t want to leave on a sour note. Coffee was great and the bill ever greater. This was a true family meal, cooked by the family, served by the family and prepared by the family, for locals. If you are ever nearby this is so worth the effort. Thank you mama.

 

 

 

A day at the Adriatic seaside

Having seen, over the past days, the turquoise strip lining the horizon in the far distance, it was time to leave the peace and tranquility of the Marche countryside and have a day at the seaside. On reflection, a mistake.

An hour down the motorway to Ancona and then, a few miles out of town, the map suggested a narrow, picturesque lane down to a bay. Clues to what we would find lay in our approach. Firstly, stopping off on the cliff-top to see, in the distant haze, the waters of the Adriatic and a shimmering beach covered with row after row of different coloured sunbeds lined up like regiments preparing an attack. The battalion stand like small-scale, model soldiers, on station, firm and erect, facing the appealing waters, stretching away as far as the eye can see. Preparing to attack or defend what? The sea? Hmmmm.


With trepidation we follow the tarmac down. Like an evacuation, cars are parked, nee abandoned, on every spare bit of road, every field. We get down the bottom. Both beach car parks are full. ‘Park your car up on the field a km away with the other thousand motors and get the shuttle bus down’. OMG. What must the beach be like!!

So we cut our losses and abandon that plan. We take the cliff road to Soroli. A picturesque town high on the cliffs above the coast and, yes, the car parks and rocky beaches way, way below.

The place is almost empty. I suppose everyone has booked their sunbeds for the day and is roasting down on the rocks. Here we find our one nugget, our small piece of calm and class. In the shade of a fig tree, outside a small boutique hotel we have a simple lunch- canelloni stuffed with assorted seafood, a couple of glasses of the local white and apricot tart to finish up with. Heaven. The high spot of the day.


Then back in the car, down to Sunbed Strip and Umbrella City and the angled, wooden beds of browning, burning bodies on one side of the road and the parked heat-locked cars parked on the other, before giving up, hot and exasperated, and heading for the the cool breezes of the hills, back to our peaceful base. Why did we go out in the first place?

 

Even further along the back roads

Today is a drive over to Pergola to pick up the trail again. The countryside remains the same but the further west, the higher the land gets and the more alpine the scenery and the architecture becomes.

Pergola is another ordinary but charming, warm place on the route. Narrow streets lead through from one sunny side to another creating shady patches for the locals at play. Animated chatter and card schools seem to be the order of the day.

The castle at Frontone can be seen from miles away standing erect over the hills and low mountains of its immediate neighbourhood.

Close up it stretches up high into the sky whilst the rest of this cobbled medieval village shudders in its shadow. The views from the walls show how much the landscape is changing.

The last place on this mini tour is Cagli. Again a huge fortress guards the entrance to the town. Once negotiated it is a downhill walk through the streets to the central plaza where wonderful faded buildings create a perimeter of flaky plaster and ancient, muted whitewash. The locals, as everywhere, collect in groups to chatter the evening away.

So that’s it. You could drive on a few km to see the view from the top of Mt. Catria. Or you could have dinner in Cagli and call it a day. I decided on the latter.

Along the back roads of La Marche

Whenever you get a chance to explore a new area, ignore the glittery postcards, the guide books and head for the back roads. Of course a car is essential to get you away from the main tourist sights and onto the those little narrow roads that reveal surprises and amazing sights around every corner. This is a 40 km route in La Marche that is a little gem of a journey that takes in a collection of hidden treasures for the intrepid traveller.

The route runs along the ridges from west to east, south of Urbino nd ends in the foothills of the high hills and mountainds of Italy’s central spine. Beautiful country spreads out on both sides of the road, rolling away to the distant horizon in folds.

This is enough, in itself, to take one’s breath away but wait until you stop at some the places along the way. Ostra Vetere is a sign of things to come when it appears in the distance above the farmland with its medieval facade becoming larger and then falling away behind me as I drive past.

I am heading for Corinaldo to start my little tour. The only sign that this place is about to give up its wedding cake secrets is the large fortified gate in the middle of town. Through the arch round the corner and there is the medieval escalator of stone steps to take punters into the heart of this pretty, peaceful place and, yes, a wedding has taken place and the happy couple pose in front of this romantic backdrop, snapped by cameras and a whirring drone. The only other people here are a scattering of folk finishing their lunch in snug little terrace restaurants.


Mondavio sounds l like the country from a Marx Brothers’ film. It doesn’t look that impressive from a distance. Up close and intimate it becomes a set for Game of Thrones, not that I’ve seen a single episode.

A cobbled-streeted villages with its 12th century church merges with its main protector with a moated 13th century castle, all made from bricks. They must have needed millions and millions and so clever. The fortifications curve and flow around the town, the lines built to. presumably divert cannon balls along their contoured fronts.

San Lorenzo in Campo is an small, charming, ordinary town. We hit it later afternoon a the locals chatter in their favourite patches of shade.

This lot thought it hilarious that their 2-stroke road-friendly, three-wheeled, vans were the focus for us visitors. I asked them to pose with their vans and they agreed with great hilarity all round.

To be continued.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker in Cupramontana

It’s Saturday. Up early and a short drive into Cupramontana for provisions for the weekend. Nothing is open tomorrow, Sunday. So into the car, first gear & 20km per hour up the white gravel track to reach the metal road into town. Hills to the left, hills to the right, hills in front and hills behind. Up and rolling, bending down and over, roads and tracks squeeze around bubbles of woods and trees, stoned villages close and far away on tops and in valleys and through fields with every hue of browny earthiness. Every metre has a view across this rolling patchwork of awesome agricultural colour mixes.

It is like moving across an artist’s palette, driving from one colour to the next as ploughed earths mix it up with harvested grasses and rows of vines stand next to clumping trees that abound with fruit – walnuts and pomegranates and olives. Textures, shapes, rural colours crowd in on your eyes and your senses.

So the first stop is to get in to the bakers. Now the Italians do many things perfectly – pasta, pizza, fish, wine, coffee, but bread is not on this list.Usually it takes the form of snubby loaves with hard middles and even harder crusts the are past their best within 30 minutes or so of baking. So when you have a recommendation that the local baker’s fresh loaves are to die for, you go for it, especially as they tend to go before 1030. Park outside, straight in and a fresh crispy French stick is on the lunchtime menu.


The next up is the butcher. This is found down the small side street with a narrow entrance with a pink, porky pig above the door. They love their pork around here. On a narrow table a lady is selling crackling in every form and just crackling- ears, tails, cheek flaps, every bit of skin you can imagine large and small. We have a bit of friendly agro trying to order meat. Avoiding the stare of the white skinned rabbit, complete with head and long neck attached, snuggling around a large carrot, the campaign starts. We want duck. A picture of 2 plump duck breasts comes to mind, like what might be found in Waitrose. None are obvious. Using Google we show signor the word. He mutters under his breath, goes out the back and gets his wife. Ah yes, she leans over, moves some carcasses about and comes up with a whole duck. We hold up two fingers for 2 breasts. You want two she says. No, one finger, duck, but 2 breasts. This goes on for a few minutes until we agree on one duck that she will cut up. Next problem. How do we want it cut? Firstly legs, neck, wing are lopped off with a chopper and put in a bag. Then the bird is halved with an electric saw. Then one half is cut into slices with a big chopper and the other into a front half and a back half with an even bigger chopper. Never had this problem in Waitrose. Now we gotta cook it!

Very good duck in plum sauce, Hazel.

The grocer is a lot easier. We can stand there and just point at tomatoes and lettuce and onions and melons and peaches put them in a bag, say ‘grazie mille’ in our best Italian and move on. The candlestick maker was supposed to produce anti-mosquito coils and citronella candles. Sadly the village had no candlestick maker but we did find some coils in the local super mercado.

After a very necessary cup of coffee in the square it was back in the car and home. Mission accomplished. You want to see the quality of the local entertainment and live music? Come over on the 18th. It’s free!!!!

A day out in Urbino

If you have never heard of Urbino then put it on your list of Italian cities to visit. It is a Renaissance city on par with the greats of Florence & Rome & Siena but without the tourist scrum. Firstly Frederico da Montefeltro, who was lord of the place during the Renaissance, 13th century for those of you who are a bit unclear on history started the trend. He attracted the greatest men and artist’s of the time to turn his palace into the cultural centre of Europe. Raphael took his first painting steps here.

The next period of splendour came in the beginning of the 18th century when Clement XI became pope and his family began a programme of construction of civil and religious buildings.


Finally the University was established in the late 19th century and set about implementing a whole load of architectural renovations.


What you get is a real mixture: a wide main street lined by the huge grand palace, the imposing, towering cathedral, lording churches, tall & elegant buildings housing apartments and businesses. Narrow streets lead up & down off the ridge to create a grid pattern of bricked splendour and clay-tiled grace.

Arriving at 11 the carpark is half empty and the rear walls of the city stretch high up above. Oh, lord. How many steps to reach the top and in this heat! My heart falls. Bt HEY, this is Italy. There, over by the shadow of the wall is the entrance to…… the lift. 50 cents takes one person up 4 floors to the main promenade around the ramparts. BRILLIANT.


So, into the bright sun, a coffee to prepare the soul for the tourist trap that awaits. Up the medieval tiled steps, around the corner to the top of the main street…. there is no one there, well almost no one. Down the bottom there is a group of about 16, waiting outside the church. Sadly, the only thing to let the place down is the arrival of an incongruous, red and white plastic tourist choo-choo train . The queue quickly climbs aboard and off it goes, taking them off in its 3 x 21st century carriages to circumnavigate this wonderful classic city, never to be seen again.

And I do mean enjoy this place ‘without the tourists’. No bustling crowds, only one hawker selling religious books, no queues to get into any museum, civilised wanderings in palaces and streets, tables available in cafes & restaurants for lunch, gelatos on demand.

Many of the sights of Urbino are around on the streets both in terms of locals and wonderful architecture.

Sadly the cathedral is closed following the earthquake.

The Palazzo Ducale di Urbino, Frederico’s place is worth a visit. Not only the building itself, dating from the 13th century, but also the range of paintings by artists like Raphael, Bocatti & Alberti da Ferrara amongst others, sounding a bit like models Italian motorbikes. I have to pinch myself. Most of these many, many pieces date from around 1400. Many are painted onto wooden panels, doors, straight onto walls as frescoes and woven into huge tapestries tho cover the walls. Carvings abound around gargantuan fireplaces, doorframes & cornices.  All slightly overawing.

Easily spent 5 hours there, wandering the streets and popping into churches and gardens and piazzas before descending in the lift for the short journey down the coast and home.

Put Urbina on your list.

 

Out and about close to home

Having spent a few days cooling off in the pool it is time to get those explorer’s boots on …well my Birks. The first place to pick off the map, which is close by, is Jesi. It stretches out along a ridge and boasts a medieval centre on the site of the Roman forum. We hit it on Assumption Day when most of Italy is in church or at the beach. The place is empty except for a bit of holy chanting coming from the churches and some conversation from the only bar open in its long , wide pedestrianised streets. Most of the buildings leading up to the square are tall, rather grand 17th century properties which provide cooling shade wind relief from the baking sun.

Parking is easy, at least.

Cingoli is one of those walled, fortified, hilltop villages. We caught it as they were opening up for a wine tasting event. However tempting the drink/driving laws made me an observer rather than a participant. Still, I could enjoy the preparations and observe the Italians at play. There are so many yappy little dogs in Italy tangling their owners up in cafes and on the streets. I have never seen so many chiwow-was. Sorry, not sure how you spell it and can’t really be bothered as they are a poor excuse for a pet/dog.


The best discovery was the town of Treia. Heading elsewhere, it jumped out at us on a hilltop in the distance as we drove past and demanded that we visit.

A Roman settlement set up on a high ridge on the road from Rome to the port of Ancona. It was such a gem to find – peaceful, classic, imposing.

And then I met this chap. If you look closely you can sees that his short, shorts have prints of scooters on them. Is he Italy’s first mod? He must have thought he looked good as he stopped and posed for me. What do you think? Out of 10?

Soaking up la Marche

You may have wondered where I’d got to. There again, maybe not. Any way, I’ve spent a few days settling into my Italian home for the next two weeks. I have come 100 or so miles south, just inland from Anconna. This country side stretches away from the tops of rolling hills in every direction. Gentle valleys contour around slopes and folds of land like the swirls created by a gymnast ‘s ribbon. Fields of browns & tans and earthy hues jigsaw together with the green bubbles of deciduous trees and woods. Farms and barns are scattered over the land, in between the steeples and spires and walls of hilltop villages which draw the visitor like a magnet. In the distance the panorama is framed by the turqoise waters of the Adriatic around a rim of truncated volcanoes that explain why this area is subject to earthquakes.

This is the view from our terrace:

My home is set down a ‘white road’, rather a pitted track which one can get up if driven in first at 20km an hour. I am surrounded by the patchwork fields of La Marche. My silence is only disturbed by the call of circling buzzards and in the distance the metallic squeaking of harvesting tractors that quietly roar their wayup and down the gradients and then chugger to each other as they summon up the strength for another run. Within a few hours the crop is harvested & taken off, the remnants bailed and left littering the field in haphazard cuboids and deep silence descend around me again.

Cupramontana is the closest settlement of any size, just up the road. Not a lot goes on here. As the day comes to an end and the buildings give up their heat, the locals grab a chair or find a seat in the shade and ponder over events and share anecdotes and gently wind down with friends and neighbours before disappearing inside as darkness falls. Everyone seems comfortable in their groups which tend to be gender and age specific with little mixing it up.

Can life really be that simple?

 

Unlocking the mosaics of Ravenna

All memories of yesterday’s storm are forgotten when drawn curtains reveal solid blue sky. Today Ravenna’s secrets are to be unlocked. This is why I love Italy. To walk around narrow streets and piazzas, shaded by ancient buildings and chapels and churches and statues on pillars and surrounded by history and culture and food and coffee. Cafes with tables line the cobbled streets with men drinking their espresso behind their spread newspapers as I seek that restaurant for dinner where the locals will be eating. A gentle trickle of folk pass – mamas with shopping bags half full, classy ladies struggling to keep up with their scuttling dachshunds, tattooed youth on their way somewhere or other. In these car-free streets a constant stream of cyclists gently avoid the pedestrians with a tinkle of a bell – sexy girls with long tanned legs in short shorts, elegant moustached gentlemen and the whole gambit of Italian society on their way to work, to shop, to play.


Nothing out of the ordinary you might think. It sounds like a typical Italian town. But Ravenna is like a geologist’s display cabinet. It has been the capital city of three different civilisations in its time and so is quite an important place. From 400 AD the early Christians have impacted on its society and its buildings. Religious buildings cover the old centre, mostly red-bricked. Crack their dull, dusty shell open and be aghast. As each reveals their glistening, sparkling, crystalled inside,yourr breath will be dragged from your body in awe. Mosaics have used as an art form for centuries to decorate and commemorate the inside of churches and mausoleums. Here are a few.

I am going to start with the old library which is upstairs in the new library. Whilst not a mosaic in sight it feels to me like the Bodleian in Oxford and I wanted to share.


The crypt of the church of San Francesco its mosaics underwater. You may be able to spot the carp.


The Mausoleum di Galla Placidia, an important lady of the 13th century, is small and intimate and glorious. Mosaics, remember. Little bits of tile.

Basilico di San Vitale has these positioning around its dome but the whole alter is surrounded by a gargantuan spread of mosaic saints.


Battistero degli Ariani, Basilica di Apollinare Nuono and the Neonian Baptistry are three more temples to the mosaic.

 

Pootling and paddling around Bolgna

Well here we are again. Like a cosy pair of slippers, I am in Italy once more. Starting off in Bologna to get everything together. Well, you have to plan a trip properly. So, fly in, pick up a car, check in to hotel for one night, a beer in the back streets of this impressive city …..


…..pick up Hazel, sleep and hit the road.

I choose the straightest of straight Roman roads that runs from Bologna to Rimini for at least 60 miles, without a bend or diversion. Straight as a die (what does that mean?). There are three towns on the line. The first is Imola.

Under a blue, blue sky, I wander the almost empty streets, disturbed by the odd cyclist, the small clutter of pedestrians and the building work that goes on ahead of me (that’s a picture of a clock, by the way, printed with the windows on a screen to cover the manky scaffolding). Coffee is good. Almost afraid to admit a visit to the duomo, a worshipper peers out and hobbles off before anyone sees him.

The third town in this straight line to the Adriatic is Forli. A wander to the large, open space of the central square is worth it. On all 4 sides elegant buildings compete with each other for the accolade for the grandest frontage.

However, it is the Palazzio del Poste e dei Telegrafi that wins the prize hands down – a glorious edifice to the time when to be a postie was an essential role in any country that has aspirations on the world stage. Look & admire.

Now you might get a clue from this picture about the impending doom that is about to descend on Forli in the next 10 minutes. The skies darken and darken with every quickening pace back to the car. The timing is perfect – doors thunk as huge spots of rain thwack on the window and a whirl of winds rush and pound and glower and push all around the piazza. In the centre of town the buildings protect cycles & cars from the squally outbursts of torrential sprays from the mouth of the storm, accompanied by thundering claps and explosive lightning.

The real war zone lies on the plane tree-lined avenues leading out of town. Huge cannon balls of weather have blasted their wet, destructive force through the branches and trunks leaving them broken and maimed on the streets and parked cars below. A few of us try to slalom our way around the carnage, lights flashing as we avoid the dangers we can see but very aware that above, the wind still shakes the trees searching for weaknesses to drop down on our convoy.

Peering through the deluge of curtained rain and wooded obstacles, I follow the sat nav through the gloom. The wreckage becomes lighter, the sound of the storm becomes calmer and the rain patters then pitters and the world returns to normal. Having survived 30 minutes of wet, stormy hell and successfully found a way out of town, the road to Ravenna beckons. An hour later the clouds break, the sky resumes its heated blue and reason returns.

 

Capri in retrospect

So does the sun always shine on Capri? Well I don’t know the answer to that but it certainly did on the 6 days I was there; and, boy, was it glorious. It really is a lovely place to visit on a short trip. Yes, it is expensive as everything has to come by sea, and, yes, during the day the ferries discharge day trippers galore to clog up the narrow streets and lanes in the two main centres of Capri town and Anacapri. Other than these two factors it is a great place to explore.

Capri town has a classy feel about it but as long as you keep to window-shopping and people-watching over your one coffee it is a busy but intriguing experience. It does help that the last ferry off the island is at 6pm so in the evenings everything calms down, the shops shut and some gentle nightlife can take over in bars and restaurants.

Anacapri is smaller and much more Italian with fewer columns of visitors. The one reason to visit the town is to get the chair lift up to the top of the highest peak. It is a peaceful 10 minute swing each way and is well worth the effort as the whole island and nearby mainland spreads out in below you in a landscape of rock and canopies, scattered white villas around hotels, and tracks of vessels sniffing around in the coastal waters.

I stayed even further west at a small B&B, il Paradiso di Capri, run by Guiliano and his family. The breakfast terrace and my balcony overlooked the sea and Ischia to the west, hence the sunsets.

Nothing was to much trouble for Guiliano. He made reservations for dinner, dashed up and down the hillside to collect and deposit visitors at the port, always had a smile and a happy greeting. A lovely man.

We ate at places he recommended. Restaurants on the island run this truly great service. Each one will collect their punters from their accommodation and take then back when they have eaten. Now that is cool. We took to Le Arcate in Anacapri and ate there three times. No view, no sunsets but the friendliest of welcomes, amazing service and great food. Papa opened it 36 years ago when he arrived from Naples with his family. Nico, the head waiter, looked after us- a lovely man with a dry sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye and always up to mischief whilst looking after his clients so well. On the last night he had our table waiting and set, with our favourite bottle of Chianti standing guard. The homemade lemoncello was to die for.

So thank you Capri. If any of you want to get away from it all for a while, I thoroughly recommend it.

 

Round and round the island in a tiny boat

So here we go, around the small island of Capri. This is Nico. He has a small, traditional boat painted blue. He meets his guests in the harbour, gives us a steadying hand to board,  settles us down and casts off. Leaving Capri behind us we set out into the open sea.

We sail, rather motor, anticlockwise around the island. It is a crowded procession of boats, all showing off their beautifully painted and varnished hulls and masts with bright chrome gleaming proudly in the sun. Most carry a handful of passengers but occasionally one of the harbour big boys tries to bully everyone else out the way with a hundred or so passengers pointing their iphones at the craft below.

Under blue skies and on turquoise waters, with gentle breezes cooling us down, we gasp in wonder at the ruins of castles and Roman villas perched high up at the tops of sheer cliffs. Down at sea level rocky ledges & platforms, laughingly called beaches, provide safe bathing areas for locals & tourists or acess to a private villa or an upmarket restaurant. In places ingenious designers have created formal bathing areas with bathing hits and rows of sunbeds.

The flotilla of boats hug the coastline sniffing out caves & grottos. Once one is found the skippers very politely allow each other in turn to enter the shady darkness of these arched cathedrals shaped by the sea. There is no queue barging here.

Around strong headlands arched villas or cloistered hotels appear. Natural rock formations address given human names like ‘the heart’.

Very high end, luxury craft, are moored off the coast, yatchts and sail, acting as bathing and sunning platforms for rich families and gorgeous gals & guys. A nice life if you can get it.

 

 

Amongst the rich and famous

The town of Capri is very different to Anacapri. The tourists arrive at the harbour and get a bus or the vernacular railway up the hill short distance to the small central piazza beside the church.

In this space four cafes have packed their tables and umbrellas leaving three narrow pathways to the archways and the town’s riches. Elegant & suave locals drink their coffee surveying the lines of  tourists come to disturb their peace.

They view the lines of chattering pale-skinned Chinese and the drawling large American from their wicker chairs, faintly amused by the endless stream of overheated, sunhatted visitors in columns of minipeded legs lead by the raised furled umbrella – a beacon to all tourists seeking that one image or piece of tat to impress their pals back home.

Taking one of the narrow alleys the town reveals itself.

Elegant hotels welcome high end visitors to relax in cool gardens after visiting those really upmarket designer stores that the rest of us pass by laughing in envy. Well, I love the style of the mature Italian gentleman but is this really my look: the total outfit costs £5,00 euros from the Dolce & Gabbana shop.

Tourist watering holes and rich oases need servicing. Special porters’ carts, delivery vehicles and even dustbin trucks squeeze through Capri’s arteries.

Evidence of the playground of many Caesars is dotted around the edges of the cliffs. These are the gardens of Caesar Augustus.

Most visitors head for Capri for the day. They crawl around the town, grab a piece of cold pizza and board a bus and head out to Anacapri. The little mini-mope buses scurry up & down the hill between Capri & Anacapri, the orange local buses and the smart blue private company ones, competing with each other to deliver their human cargo as quickly as possible. Out they tumble, “Ooooh, arhhh”; pizza or mozzarella & tomatoes for a tenner and back to the ferry; “ We’ve done Capri” shout American & Chinese voices “and we bought the bag”.

The rest of us can enjoy the peace of shady evenings in warm stoned streets once they have returned to the mainland.

Up in the hills around Anacapri

So how does this large rock called Capri work? The island lies from east to west. It consists of hard, rocky cliffs and hillsides covered in scrubby pines and cyprus trees. It doesn’t take long to drive from one end of the island to the other. There are two main settlements. There is the town of Capri which spirals around the cliffs above the harbour and there is the town of Anacapri which is situated high up amongst the crags & boulders of the dry hills. Each is very different to the other. My B&B is great over on the west coast near Faro, which means lighthouse and, yes, there is a lighthouse down at the bottom of a whole load of steps.

Capri and Anacapri and Faro are linked by narrow, and I mean narrow, roads that run between high, hard walls. These are wide enough to fit in three scooters side by side. So this is the ultimate game of chicken and the home of the the small car. Small buses, carrying locals & tourists alike, run around like sardine cans on wheels. 8 people can sit and up to 24 can stand as they jerk their way around and down the helter-skelter of alleys and aisles, competing with scooters and those little pop-pop three wheeled, wobbly trucks.

Occasionally big brother taxis push their way to the front. These are rather grand. They are cut off Nissan & Fiats. Instead of a roof they have a canvas canopy, beneath which punters laze and view passers-by.

Anacapri has all the elements of a small Italian town. Old streets undulate around the church.

Cafes and restaurants create their piece of umbrellared shade and mix it with smart clothes shops selling linen and kashmere. Above a small square a promenade provides a wonderful view of the harbour and Capri town down below.

It has a chair lift that takes punters up to the highest peak. Small streets provide homes for these classy tourist outlets whilst locals live, work and play and get on with their everyday lives.

As night falls the tourists ebb away leaving a dusky, eerie peace within shuttered streets.

 

 

 

 

On the Italian island of Capri with the rich & famous

Well, my loyal readers, I am back in my beloved Italy. I do love this country – the climate, the people, the way of life, the lyrical, lilting rhythmns of the language between gesturing locals, the elegant dress of the guys looking so cool whatever the weather, the wine, the linguini del mare, the blueness of the sky, the turquoise of the sea, the history, the cyprus trees, the peeling plasterwork and the bleached colours of medieval churches and temples and statues. I love it.

 

I am on the island of Capri with the rich around famous. It’s a short journey across Naples from the airport to the port through the tall tenement blocks of uniform windows above graffitied shuttered fronts and squiggled walls through horned traffic and yelling mopeds. No laws about using mobiles when driving through these streets. One hand on front bars of scooters, balancing the phone while swerving through cars & buses, the other dances over the key pad to text or to call then it is tucked into the crash helmet to enable a proper conversation whilst using two hands to negotiate the next junction. A skill all of its own.

So, I buy a ticket, have the espresso whilst I wait to take my place in the queue. I use the word lightly. It starts off nice & ordered until the boat comes in and then we are squeezed through the gate and along the quay, onto the ferry and deposited in a hard plastic seat somewhere on board.

But it is exciting as the turbos wind up and we leave the harbour, leaving the unmistakable shape of Vesuvious on the port side (or is it the starboard?). It takes about 45 minutes to cross. The sleepy harbour greets the ferry.

Guiliano is there to drive to his B&B. “Oh, Mark. Put you elbow in from the window as sometimes I have to scrape the walls”. A hairy 30 minute drive up & down narrow, stone-walled aisles/streets brings me to my accommodation on the cliffs of the far west coast of the island.

An afternoon on the balcony snoozing with a beer in the sun, occasionally opening one eye to check that the view is still there – the island of Iscia across the water, the trail of tourist boats popping in and out of grottos and caves like lines of earwigs exploring cracks beneath our skirting boards, sweeping, soaring gulls hang & glide like hang-gliders on a vortex of currents crying & crawing for company.

Yep, eating mama’s ravioli on the terrace as the sun sets confirms the view is still there.

Bring on tomorrow.

 

Real people live and work amongst the visiting tourists

When one visits Florence for the day, it is easy to forget that real people live and work and earn a living from the flocking tourists. The coaches unload their lines of gaping visitors, all processing after each other like goats on a hill path, the lead goat identified by the raised arm and the majorette’s baton raised aloof. The locals begin their daily routine of entertaining, feeding, quenching, sketching, guiding these columns of multicolored, umbrellared, sunglassed, overheated, dehydrated ants.

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Amongst this turmoil the locals go about their business. They shop in the market. They grab a coffee on the way to work. They celebrate their saint’s day. They deliver goods. They drive buses and take their children to school.

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But Florence is not all crowded piazzas of camera clicking guests where couples and groups shuffle in competition with other to take the best selfie in front of the duomo or medieval bridge or the statue of David or the one with the fig leaf over the necessary bits. Come late afternoon, the columns of exhausted, rather ratty guides show their charges onto their coaches and bid a fond farewell with a huge sigh of relief and a slight niggle at the meagerness of their tip. The city also sighs. Gradually the streets empty and life can go on uninterrupted, as it has done since the Medicis ruled this city centuries ago.

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Florence, Italy – I must be Rennaissance Man

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Like a favourite pair of fluffy, old slippers, it feels so good to be wriggling my toes back in the comfort of Italy and visiting Florence in particular. This place sums up the whole country in the space of such a small area. From the small roof top terrace that pops it’s head above the red clay tiled roof tops, I am at the same level as the Duomo, the famous, dome of the cathedral. It is just there, standing gloriously tall above the deep shaded maze of narrow streets and sun blazed piazzas, the points of cypress trees stand guard on the foliaged hillside to the south of the River Arno, scooters putt around, horns beep, sirens tangle in echoes through the hazey hot atmosphere, even in May. The laughter and cries of children always succeed in reaching the ears before any other sounds, however high up. On the hour a cascade of deep bells boom and bombard the ears of the city, competing for the ears of the faithful to remind them what they should really be thinking about. Just add the pasta and the food, and stir with copious amounts of classy Chianti, consumed by classy guys in their waistcoats & suits with their wavy curls & twinkling eyes and even classier, elegant women and you have that special, Italian way.

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I am going to have to let the images tell the story of this place. It is just so magnificent. Every piazza, every hillside, every surrounding ridge is set off with a a marble facade, a church or cathedral or religious house, a steeple, a tower, a dome or a crescent of tiles. And within the squares and piazzas, or dwarfing the steps of religious houses, framed by these wonderful 13th century buildings are awesome statues and sculptures of bottoms and bulges and boobs and …..other, hanging bits. Angels and gladiators and biblical he men compete with galloping horses and rearing creatures, all larger than life and 10 times more imposing than us lowly mortals. And I’ve not been inside yet. Enjoy.

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Leaving Umbria for Lake Como

The early departure means the capture of the mists rising amongst the hilltops around the valley creating a mythical landscape of mystery & legend.

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The drive up past Milan to Como brings us to the grand Italian lake where elegance & romance mix in culture, buildings, landscape & people.

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The town of Como has the usual old centre where the well- to-do while away their Saturday with long lunches amongst the towers & spires of the mediaeval buildings & piazzas.

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Tourists wander the same streets & squares and then to cool down take a two ball gelato or queue for a ticket on the old steamers for a quick cruise on the water.

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The locals find shade wandering through the trees of park. Who said romance was dead? Well, the guy in the van sold a can of coke for 6 Euros. Steep enough to kill any thought of  romance don’t you think?

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We leave Como, and, sadly, Italy, with a magnificent drive through alpine passes and the St Bernard pass & tunnel in particular. This route is thoroughly recommended for awesome, gob smacking glimpses & views of peaks & ranges & streams & glacial rivers & lakes & castles & churches & forts & farms. Awesome.

The mediaeval hamlet of Anghiari

Only a conversation over dinner with a friendly waitress opens the delights of the small hamlet of Anghiari. It is not mentioned in the Rough Guide and so is almost deserted except for a few tourists. The hamlet is situated on a hill overlooking the Umbrian plains. A Roman road connects it to the town of Sansepolcro a few miles away. The old town nestles its narrow streets within the old walls that are no more than 100 metres across. It is like going back in time to wander the steps & narrow, dark alleys.

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Stepping through the gates in the walls leads to the small piazza and the adjoining Roman road that links the peace & silence of Anghiari to the outside world.

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In the distance you can see the town of Sansepolcro – a quiet town which holds a crossbow competition in a few weeks time, so continuing the mediaeval history theme that every town & village in the area seems to promote.

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A gentle drive around Lago di Trasimeno

Lake Trasimeno is the fourth largest body of water in Italy and on its banks Hannibal thrashed the Romans. There are two main settlements around the shore. Passignano is small with a cluster of bars around the shore, a small church & some dilapidated battlements. Short piers straddle into the shallow waters from where passenger ferries depart for the outlying islands.

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Around the lake on the opposite side lies Castiglione del Lago – as it suggests a ‘castle on the lake’ with the duomo on the land end of a narrow ridge & castle remains & a tower on the part that juts into the water of the lake. A narrow street joins the two.

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Along this main drag bars, restaurants, pizzarias, gelaterias & shops selling local products to tourists stretch in a thin line from the small piazza, with its essential fountain, where all the action takes place (well, action is an over exaggeration for the handful of locals passing their time away).

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Jousting in Arezzo

Frequently in Italy you come across a place, a town, a smell, a sight or a site, music or sounds that will hit all your senses and take your breathe away and it will be by pure chance. That is what happen in the city if Arezzo.

It started well walking up from the carpark down in the modern part of town through the stone streets up to the main piazza. Art installations have been hung across between the tall buildings & tourists and locals  eat ice creams, drink coffee, studybuildings, visit churches and a few enter the very classy & rather expensive antique & jewellery shops.

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The first sign that something special is going on are the flags that are hanging from the  buildings all the way up and all the locals are wearing different scarves or have flags draped around their shoulders. At the top off the old town this guy is waiting down a narrow side street with a group of horses and the piazza can just be seen with a suggestion of something special taking place.

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The full splendour of the event unfolds – practice for the annual jousting competition which takes place between different quartets of the city (hence the colours & flags).

Enjoy the images and feel the atmosphere.

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Spectators support their teams, applauding each successful pass/hit of the target; the riders avoid the swinging wooden balls as in mediaeval times; others enjoy the bars while they wait for their practice session; shopkeepers wait for the action the be over to get a bit of trade; photographers capture the events for local media.

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Finally, as the sun sets and plays chasing patterns with the clouds, the day is tapped off with wine & pasta.

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A flavour of Perugia

Perugia is anothet hill-town with a mediaeval centre. Narrow, dark streets spread down the hill from the main piazzas with an almost Dickension feel as tall tenament terraces reach up to the shy and compete with each other & bell towers & spires for the available light.

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The town hinges around a single wide street with the duomo at one end and a view over the valley at the other. At street level modern facades house a range of cosmopolitan shops, bars & cafes and 4/5 floors of offices & apartments & cultural exhibitions tower over them.

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Locals go about their everyday business.

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The local radio station houses some quirky images in an old wine cellar

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On the way home we discover the delights of the Girasoli di Sant Andrea restaurant. They make their own wine, they press their own olive oil, rear their own beef & cure their own ham. This all makes for a magnificent meal topped off with dessert – ‘The Five Deadly Sins’.

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Start in bottom left corner & work your way around clockwise. The last element is a cocoa covered profiterole with 72% chocolate. Heaven! Stuffed!!

 

 

Umbria – ‘the green part of Italy’

Umbria – a beautiful region of rolling hills, woods, streams & valleys with classic hill towns each completely individual & crammed with artistic & architectural treasures. Our base to explore the region from is just outside Umbertide on the western edge of Umbria bordering Tuscany.

Some images of the house which has a definite medieval castle feel with thick stone walls, huge, dark rooms including two vast sitting areas with equally vast open fires.

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The terrace is shaded by a rambling vine and overlooks the Umbrian hills & our own private view of the neighbouring castle. Mind you it is like a 2 km hill- climb over stoney tracks to get to the place.

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And then, when those colossal lightening storms come over and the Etruscan gods start to shout at each other and pour their urns over the Umbrian hills, there is the opportunity to replay the 1966 table football world cup.

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Moving up through Tuscany

The last few days in Lazio bring Italian life to the fore. Firstly dinner at Il Ponto restaurant overlooking the stranded village of Civita do Bagnoregio linked to the ‘mainland’ by the long pedestrian bridge.

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The following day is spent enjoying the space that is Vittorio & Beatrice’s home- they live in the far side during the summer & leave their guests in privacy to enjoy the rest of the house & the pool.

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They ask us to join them for the evening at Beatrice’s parents home across the valley. A group of young opera singers have joined their mentor to train their voices and family & friends are treated to a performance on the terrace under the stars. A bass sings four cantatas and then we all join in with a song sheet in Italian – not quite to Rock Choir standard! This is followed by a traditional meal for the 17 of us including lasagna, potato & beetroot & copious amounts of the local red wine. I am now a convert to cow mozzarella.

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It is with sadness that we leave Vittorio & Beatrice the following day. We came as guests and left as friends.

We drive across the farmland of Lazio, the scenery becoming less wooded as we move north via the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore providing a haven of shade from the parched landscape of southern Tuscany-not that there were many monks in evidence; just the well heeled clientele at the exclusive restaurant.

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It is then across the dry scraped landscape of Tuscany towards Umbria. Parched rolling farmland split only by lines of telephone wires, clusters of olive trees & vines, bubbles of mixed woodland, farm buildings ancient & modern and that quentissential feature of rural Italy – the lines & rows of cypress trees. But then on a hill in the distance appears the silhouette of a tower or a spire or fortifications with modern houses & flats huddled around its base. Around the next bend another similar settlement appears to continually reassure that life has gone on in this way for centuries.

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The drive ends in Umbria where the scenery changes yet again with wooded hills leaving wide fertile river valleys in between and large fields of tobacco & corn.

 

A chance sighting opens up Montefiascone

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Driving through the Lazio countryside we catch a glimpse of Montefiascone through the olive & fruit trees. The duomo rears up high, perched on the rim of an old volcano and dominates the skyline. The car seems to turn in that direction automatically.

Taking the lift up from the carpark (yes, lift) the small Etruscan old town is like going back in time. Up close the 17th century duomo is equally impressive as it is from a distance. This is yet another landmark on the pilgrim route that links Canterbury & Rome – the Via Francigena.

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Everyday life of modern Italians is evident throughout the mediaeval streets that crowd around the duomo.

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The surprise, having snaked a route through the shadows of these narrow alleys is arriving at the western gate to see the whole of Lake Bolzano & surrounding countryside spread out before you in the glorious colours of the setting sun which sets up shadows to give an extra dimension to the landscape & atmosphere.

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As always, the town square is the hub of all the streets & alleys and of town life. The omnipresent fountain provides the focal point for whiling away time or chatting or just sitting to contemplate the day. I like this guy- people come to him!!20140828163200_IMG_2750

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Lago di Bolsena has it all

We have the sat nav to thank for discovering this place. Having decided to drive towards the coast we drop down to Lake Bolsena, the largest in Lazio & occupying a broad volcanic crater with its own microclimate around its shore where vines & olive trees grow in the fertile soil. The town of Bolsena has elegant avenues of huge deciduous trees leading to the shore, mediaeval nooks & alleyways running off the main drag and a 14th century castle perched over the western edge of a ridge overlooking the lake. The history dates back to Roman & Etruscan times. Dante praised the quality of the eels caught by local fishermen along with perch & pike, all of which feature highly on local menus!

So enjoy these images of the town & the lakeside.

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As dusk falls  & the sun starts to set a quiet promenade is required through the avenue of large trees to the lakeside. A quiet beer on the ‘beach’ to watch the locals fish & catch the last few rays before dinner in the trattoria on its own small pier over the water. Aaaahhhh!!!

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