Sunday, 28 November 2010

Pieve di Cento, Ferrara, Padova, Venice, Verona and Lago di Garda

22nd - 27th November

Pieve di Cento

Lovely ChitarraAfter spending pretty much the whole of the 22nd perusing an out of town shopping centre, and treating ourselves to Italian walking boots as it was fast approaching winter and we both needed a decent pair, we spent the next day exploring Pieve di Cento, north of Bologna. This was a typical small town of this area and on a beautiful day as we had it was easy to fall in love with the town. In the main square we were greeted with an open-sided van selling oranges and advertising his wares with a megaphone as he drove round the town. Chitarras & MandolinAlso in the main square we found the communal theatre which upstairs featured a museum of lutes, guitars violins and other instruments made by Luigi Mozzani and some of his contemporaries. These were amazing instruments featuring bass strings and the standard guitar 6-strings in one amazing piece. The guitars on display were similarly beautiful. I also spotted a 12 string violin, something I've not seen before.


Este CastelLater the same day we arrived in Ferrara, historical home of the Este family, another of the Renaissance big-hitters. Right in the centre of the town sits Este Castle, an imposing sight in this pretty little town. We arrived in the middle of an exhibition drawing attention to the Year of Biodiversity projects that have been going on around the world (and we seem to have caught a lot of them!). The Faunal Countownexhibition was called the "Faunal Countdown" which I thought was a good play on words and it featured life-sized sculptures of various animals dotted around the town with certain twists. For example there was a rhinoceros fully loaded with all it's bags and heading out of Este castle. Another was a crocodile strung up in the centre of a courtyard with shapes of bags and shoes missing from it's skin.
Ferrara itself was another wonderful place to visit and we were very glad we decided to pop in. The town was full of old historical buildings and was full of character. We spent the night in a suburb just a little way from Ferrara so we could have another look the next day. Most of the day was spent cycling around the pretty large city walls, which Nailz thoroughly enjoyed, and later enjoyed another amble around the town.
Heading out of the town we stopped into musical heaven. It was an out of town shopping centre featuring an almighty music store on the top floor. After about twenty minutes of just walking among the rows of Marshall stacks, Fenders and Gibsons I came over all giddy and had to leave, my right hand twitching towards my wallet...
We had started to struggle to find decent dry wood and didn't have decent weather to dry any new wood we found along our way so on the way to our next destination we stopped at a house that was on the side of the road with a huge store of wood, all cut ready to go to see if we could buy some wood from them. We pulled up and were greeted by a quizzical looking lady and through my broken Italian I was able to convey our request. She could not have been more lovely and after a bit of negotiation (she said the price, I agreed, she refused to take the full payment!) we left with a massive amount of wood for a few Euros (we had to seriously re-arrange things as well as keep quite a bit in the main part of the van), as well as a bag of eggs from her own hens, some salad from her garden and some of her home-made bread which was delicious (although didn't last long at all!). Bargain! We were also told by her son (who had phoned a mate who could speak English to ensure we understood correctly) that anytime we were passing by to stop in and say hello. We werre well chuffed and now also had enough wood to have lovely warming fires night and day which was good as we had been told the weather was about to turn cold...


Basilica San MichaelOn the 25th we found ourselves in Padova which is a lively University city. It again was an amazing place to visit and we had timed our visit perfectly as there were a number of parties going on for students who had graduated which created a boistrous atmosphere. Crazy studentRachel was even "accosted" by a lady covered in Bolognese sauce who had been "dared" to dress up as an abortion in order to promote her thesis on women's Rights. It was really funny and we had a lot of laughs pretending we didn't understand as her colleagues egged her on and took photographs. It was bizarre, but then it did involve drunk students, so what do you expect?
Padova itself was just magical. It's back-streets were like something from a Dickens novel, until you suddenly come upon a tower with an astronomical clock, while in the main square there was a huge cathedral with domes reaching to the sky. Further into the square a small river ran round the centre and was surrounded by sculptures. There was also the Basilica of San Michael which was again very imposing from the outside, and all in all the place was gorgeous and a real blend of many different styles in both architecture and life.


View of canalsThe morning of the 26th was spent trying to figure out the best way to visit Venice in your campervan when you really need a boat. We got it sussed by using one of the out of town park (who reasonably charged us a cheaper rate, being a van and not a campervan!) and getting the bus in to Piazza Roma. It was completely worth the effort as we were both bewitched by Venice almost immediately. We arrived at a time when the water was higher than normal (Venice regularly floods) and so we were able to take part in the ritual of walking the planks along some of the flooded streets. Nailz didn;t like it at all as the weather had turned decidedly cold and with so much water about I think he wished he had stayed in the van! But Venice is amazing and Rachel and I had a wonderful time strolling along the canals and inevitably getting a bit lost (there are good signs though to guide you to the main sights). What was amazing was the chaos on the main canal and how no-one crashed despite it looking like the aquatic version of dodgems. Gondola derbyEven the TNT delivery man power-slide his vessel into port and jumped off with a style James Bond would be envious of. Nimble gondolas easily side-stepped other boats, Vaporettos (the Venice equivalent of a bus service) charged up and down the main canal and the whole scene, with it's plethora of different ships was quite captivating. We made it safely to the Piazza San Marco to see the Cathedral of San Marco and also the Ducal Palaces next door. Although we didn't go inside either, being happy just to Us in Venice!wander the streets, the Palace has some curious secrets inside. This was the seat of government for the Venetian empire and although you can enter the building and see it's various rooms, you have to go behind some of the paintings and room sculptures to find the real seat of power. Hidden away are entrances to various secret corridors which is apparently where all the real governing took place, the real corridors of power. Venice was cold and wet, but absolutely amazing.


AmphitheatreWe headed out of Venice, or at least tried to but for some reason I couldn't seem to find my way out and kept seeing the same junctions again and again. We finally stopped for a much-needed coffee and directions which after a few more false starts headed out on the Autostrade towards fair Verona. It was quite late by now but as we only wanted a brief look around the place we were quite happy to get there after dark. It was another lovely walled town, this time with its own Amphitheatre, coloured in pink and white. It could hold as many as 20,000 people in it's heyday making it the third biggest in the Roman Empire, and in the dark looked very pretty.

Lago di Garda

View of the Lake from the campsiteEven later we were heading towards Lago di Garda where we spent a bit of time trying to find the damn thing, massive as it is, but we had noticed a trend for signposts suddenly disappearing and forcing you to guess left or right at a t-junction. Nevertheless we got close and bedded down for the night in what had become quite a chilly night. View of the LakeOn the way there we had noticed about two inches of snow on the side of the road and on checking the temperature found it to be about one degree.
The following frosty morning was again a cold one and after a lovely morning fire we again hit the road to find a suitable campsite for the night. We explored a few of the small towns alongside the Lago and found a nice campsite with a lovely view of the Lake and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. It was a beautiful day and the views were extraordinary.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


18th - 21st November


Statue of NeptuneOn the night of the 18th we headed north along a small curvy road towards Bologna and stayed in a suburb outside the town. The next day we were up with the larks to move into the centre of town and head to the famous University di Bologna, the oldest university in Europe.

University di Bologna

Exhibits from the University MuseumThere were a number of free museums as part of the University, and within the city (all of which are free or have a free component) and we had a lovely morning walking round a few of them. You would need a whole week to fully appreciate all of them but we made some choice selections and spent the morning and early afternoon looking around some of the Univeristy museums, marvelling at the huge numbers of skeletons, stuffed birds, nervous systems and the many other fascinating exhibits.

Old Town

Exhibits from the University MuseumThe rest of the afternoon was spent milling around the old town centre and it's 666 portico's (covered walkways which become very useful in the rain!), leaning towers and wonderful, animated streets coloured in burnt oranges, reds and browns (earning the town the nickname Bologna Le Rosso - the red). The city centre is very beautiful.
Leaning towers of BolognaWe also spent a bit of time reading about the towers in the centre, on which leans at an alarming angle, rivalling the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They were built during a time of immense turmoil in the Italian region where cities were becoming states and families were vying for power and control. As figures in authority, some families have control over civic defence buildings as part of office, which lead to rival families lining up with other figures of authority and building their own towers in response. Similar to San Gimignano, it is estimated that in Bologna there were about eighty such towers as part of the landscape, although some reports and estimates put the figure at around two hundred. Apparently it was easier to invalid your rival from the top of a tower and with around eighty towers in such a small place I can't imagine what going to the shops would have been like.


After walking around the city centre we headed back out of the city to find a place to park up and found a lovely little place called Loveleto. Here we had a lovely little walk with Nailz in the rural countryside only 6km from Bologna. We found the perfect spot to camp for the night, in a quiet sports centre car-park when about half an hour after we arrived the local football team turned up for a spot of training. I suddenly realised how much I had missed my Monday night kickabout with the Sparkshop boys, so if you're reading this Ian, say hello to the chaps from me!

Back to Bologna

Window in BolognaEarly on the 20th we checked into the local campsite early and after quickly setting up camp headed back into Bologna for a day in the town. As soon as we got off the bus we were greeted with the hustle and bustle of the Saturday market which his absolutely gigantic. With a whole day you would struggle to see all the stalls, and unfortunately for Rachel I had other plans for today. We did spend a bit of time wandering through the endless stalls looking for a good bargain, but sometimes there is too much choice and I was very much in need of a coffee so we headed off in search of MAMBO - the Museo d'Art Moderne di Bologna. This was quite an interesting museum and again the permanent collection was free. It was quite a small collection but full of stimulating (and confusion) works. As every with modern art, I sometimes like it and sometimes just wonder what the point of it was, but it was fun having a look. My favourite piece was a black and white silhouette of a chap in a cap waving a hand in the air. Very simple but considering it was just a silhouette it showed a great deal of expression and I also liked the boldness of it. I'll have to look up the name of it.

Bologna By now we were getting quite hungry but fell foul of the Bologna three O'clock exodus. All the restaurants and Trattorias had closed for lunch (oh the irony!) so after a little while walking while we tried to find somewhere open we came across a nice little bar offering "Aperativo". This involves buying a drink such as a cocktail or spirit and helping yourself to the food laid out on the bar like a buffet. We had wanted to try this so in we went, bought our drinks and went at the food. It was a very nice spread, and having had a little tipple too we were oiled and ready to go back to the market for some last minute perusing before catching the bus back to the campsite.

Aperativo in BolognaOn the 21st we had another day rolling round the old town and window-shopping before finding another Aperativo with a quite amazing spread. They offered a great deal where for a modest amount of Euros you got a glass of wine, coffee and full use of the extensive buffet. We eat very well and had a long relaxy lunch before wandering round the town to try and walk off what we had eaten.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Mugello Valley

12th - 18th November
Sunset at VagliaThis was spent in the Mugello area, just north of Florence. We had initially stopped to try and get online at a McDonalds but some time now we had not been able to (hence the lack of updates!). In Italy you need an Italian sim card and phone number to register and use the free wifi and although we had managed to do this before, now it wasn't letting us on. No message, just no access. Still, we found an incredibly friendly Tourist Info office who gave us a lot of info on the area including info about the local Library which offers free wifi if you register - bonus!

Hillsdies overlooking BorgoStrange FruitThe main towns we visited in this area of Tuscany were Barberino Di Mugello, Borgo San Lorenzo, Scarperia and some excursions into the smaller hamlets dotted around the surrounding hillsides where we went in search of preserves and cheeses and went on some amazing walks in some beautiful scenery. These towns are quaint rural working towns, and yet again everyone we spoke to was more than friendly and if they could speak English loved to tell us what they loved about England and the English, if not we still did our best with pigeon Italian and loads of gestures, smiles and nods. It's great fun.

Waterfall near BorgoWe found a great little co-operative supermarket which makes cheese and other produce from the farmers around Vecchio and it's environs. We, of course, sampled a selection and they were quite happy to ply us with cheese and other tasters such as mice-pie style cakes, but with apricot filling and the pastry was made with ricotta cheese! Delicious. The cheeses themselves are worth a mention as they have won numerous prizes and you can taste why. We also picked up some Chiannini steak which, from the local Chiannini cows, again, is all local. In fact, very little that we have found in Italy is not local! We also did our homework on Olive oils (with the help of more of the locals) who told us that cold-pressed olive oil produces a better quality of oil over the machine-pressed (we saw the machine-pressed method the other day) and also where to buy from to get a good deal. Also that usually cold-pressed is used for salads while machine-pressed, being slightly cheaper is used for cooking.

Over the next couple of days we hope to head to Bologna - the foody capital of the world, so I'm told :-)

The Uffizi Gallery - Firenze

11th November

Uffizi Gallery - Firenze

Uffizi Gallery & Ponte VecchioWent to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence after a brief stop to admire the view again from Piazzale Michelangelo. It was gorgeous in the morning sun as the mist was gently lifting over the city. After a quick coffee, on the run (Italian style) I was in amongst the man works of art. As I had got in there early there were not too many people and I was able to walk amongst the masterpieces almost at will. Later it did become pretty crowded in the main attraction rooms, such a the Leonardo and Michelangelo rooms but visiting away from peak season was a definite advantage.
The museum is separated into numerous rooms which act as a sort of timeline for art in the region. The collection was started by the powerful Medici family who controlled the Florentine city-state and patronised many works of art during the Renaissance. The Uffizi was left to the city by the Medici family on condition that it never leave Florence.
The gallery is one of the most important in the world and so is packed with masterpieces and really interesting pictures and sculptures. My highlights included the Leonardo Room with Leonardo Da Vinci's unfinished "Adoration of the Magi" which shows just how good a draughtsman he was. It looks like it has just been sketched up in black paint, but each stroke is singularly precise, nothing is wayward and the shift from background detail to the ghostly, unfinished foreground is very revealing about how he built up his paintings. It line's up alongside his famous "Annunciation" which apparently was criticised for seemingly poor proportions of the antagonists, however it seems that if you view the painting by crouching to the right of it the proportions seem spot on. This was because the painting was to be hung to the left of a church altar and was not meant to be viewed straight on which shows Leonardo's amazing skill with proportion. Also in this room was a painting by Leonardo's teacher Verrocchio - "Baptism of Christ" which shows how artists collaborated on works. One of the angels in the picture was painted by a young Leonardo and it is believed the second angel was painted by another artist working under Verrocchio. Michelangelo's Doni Tondo was the only piece by the artist at the Uffizi, but it's colour and vibrancy dominated the room. Interestingly, it is believed the Greek statue Lacoon was found whilst, or before, Michelangelo produced this work of art as one of the figures in the background is posed in the same way as one of the sons from the statue. Even the Masters aren't afraid to take inspiration (wholesale) from elsewhere. The Rapael room showed works by the artist trying his hand at differrent styles, inspired by the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo and the new-fangled "Flemish-style" which was popular for a time. Again he was open to influence but it showed his true skill in the way he was ablt to adapt to these new styles and produce amazing works of art.
There was an exhibition on the way out to Caravaggio and the artist's that he has inspired with his dark brooding styles. One of his pieces was an ornamental shield painted with the severed head of Medusa for one of the Medici Dukes.

Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take any photos (every so often the room echoed to "Nooooo Fooootooooo!!" in a weird gravelly, other-worldy voice) so here's a picture of the Duomo instead.

Chisure, Sambuca, Firenze

7th - 10th November


So the next day we continued on the foody tip and went to Chisure, another beautiful village in the Tuscan countryside. This time the theme was artichokes, as well as more local produce from paintings and crafts to home-made sauces. One of the more peculiar offerings was a sweet that tasted of chocolate and looked like pork luncheon meat. It confused the hell out of me I don't mind admitting. We were able to try fried artichoke stems which was very nice, as well as local salami and white truffles which are another speciality of the region. All very tasty.

Open house!

While we were browsing the stalls we were invited to an open house just up the road. Here we found a very hospitable community of locals and ex-pats from all over the world. We couldn't have been made to feel more welcome (thank you so much!). We were spoiled with food and I was able to sample more amazing local cuisine including artichokes, 2 kinds of soups - both wonderful, more local cheese and wine. The company was even better, and it was a shame that we had to say our good byes earlier than we would have liked, but we had made arrangements the previous day with Anna Lisa to see her wine cellar, and so we had to hit the road.

Wine Cellar

Bono VinoLater we arrived at an ex-monastery out in the sticks and were shown around Anna Lisa's lovely home. We were also shown the church and wine cellars which also form part of the monastery buildings. She had entertained some illustrious guests here, including Ronnie Wood and some of President Obama's advisors and now it was our turn. The cellar was interesting as the central pillar contained an inscription from the time of its construction which has been translated as a prayer for the making of good wine, and also a request for forgiveness from the master mason for any faults the building may have. The wine Anna Lisa produces is named after the master mason.

Pressing olives

New olive oilThe next day we visited an olive press to have a look at how new olive oil is made. We were kindly shown around the press and given a very good description from a policeman from Firenze who was helping his aunt for a week (as his vacation) pick and press the olives from her land. It was interesting to see the whole process and the bright green liquid that is produced at the end.


Hangin outOn the 9th we headed towards Firenze and stopped off for lunch at a nice little village called Sambuca, but there was not a drop in sight. It was only a little de-tour but we did manage to spot some interesting wildlife, with what looked like voles hanging out with some ducks on the side of a swollen river. They seemed to be quite good friends. We ended the day on the outskirts of Firenze having had a little scout of the area and found a suitable campsite for the next day and we admired the view from Piazzale Michelangelo which was just breathtaking as the sun was going down.


Firenze from Piazzale MichelangeloOn the 10th we checked into the campsite as we had previously been warned about motor-homes with foreign plates being targeted by opportunists in Florence by our friendly policeman. It was quite a nice site surrounded by olive trees and having seen the presses in action I had more than an idea about some late-night olive scrumping (the next morning the staff were busy picking them so I had missed my window of opportunity!). We had a nice day walking around Florence with it's imposing palaces, gigantic cathedral and vast numbers of churches and museums. The Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge left standing after WWII, was particularly cool. When the Medici family (the powerful rulers of the Firenze city-state) bought the Pitti Palace they needed to use the bridge to cross to cross the river from their other Palace they ordered the resident butchers out as they were too smelly, and ordered goldsmiths in, and the bridge is still lines with tiny jewellery shops. We saw the huge Duomo, Giotti belltower and Baptistry which dominate the skyline when seen from Piazzale Michelangelo and the copies of statues of David in the Piazzale Signoria as well as many other sculptures. We were finishing up our little tour of Firenze when a really impressive electrical storm broke right overhead and combined with the particular roof-style of the Florentine buildings it created a surreal "Big trouble in little china" type vibe. Although there were some pretty amazing sights in the city, and it was very pretty in parts, I think it looked better from overhead than up in the streets themselves.

Road signs and padlocks

Roadsign artPadlocksAnother thing worth including was the creatively altered road signs. Some had been changed to feature angels, some devils and some just generally changed for a bit of fun. We had a good game trying to spot new ones as we made our way around the city. There was also an interesting tradition of adding padlocks to certain railings. People just seemed to come up, add a lock and then leave it there so gradually railings and chains were being covered in a kind of hairy padlock growth.

Castellina in Chianti, more Sienna, and Buonconvento

4th - 6th November

Castellina in Chianti

Morning viewWe woke up on the morning of the fourth to another glorious view of morning fog settling over valleys covered in golden vineyards - we were in Chianti country, after all. After a little drive we entered the small town of Castellina in Chianti. This was a lovely little town with its own castle and defensive walls. Castellina and the whole Chianti region was a defensive line for the nearby city-state of Florence in it's conflicts with its main rival Sienna. This inevitably lead to an increase in trade for Castellina. The town centre was very old-worldy and on the beautiful day we had it was very charming. There were also some Etruscan tombs, consisting of a number of stone chambers dug into a mound of earth with narrow linking corridors. The Etruscans were one of the most advanced tribes in the pre-Roman era, and the dominant force in central Italy in the pre-Roman era.

Sienna again

Duomo interiorLibraria PiccolominiThe next day we went for a little walk in the surrounding area of Castellina as it was another superb day. Later we headed back down south towards a meat festival we had seen advertised which meant driving past Sienna again, which was good for me as I got to take more photos of the place. Even though it was only a few days ago that we had last been in Sienna, we already noticed some changes - they had put the christmas decorations up whilst we had been away! While we were there I also took the opportunity to visit the Cathedral from the inside and this was a real treat. The outside of the building may have looked like it was made of Lego, but the inside was pure Beetlejuice! The Siennese must have been incredibly wealthy to build this place ad inside it is adorned with frescoes and sculptures from some of the big names of the Renaissance. The pulpit features incredible detail depicting the life of Jesus, the floor is covered in ornate designs and there are sculptures by Michelangelo as well as some great sculptures by other great artists including one of a Saint Eustachio by Andrea Bregno. The highlight for me though was the Libraria Piccolomini. Detail on book decorationOn entering you are surrounded by huge, colourful frescoes depicting the life of Pope Pio III and all along the sides of the room are huge tomes with the most intricate decoration on the pages. It was truly amazing to see.

Car passing at nightWe then headed for the hills, literally, as we wanted to be near Buenconvento as that was were the "Meat tasting festival" was taking place the next day. We found a suitable spot hidden behind a hut of some description (we had seen a lot of these pink shacks on the side of the road and I still don't know what they are for) and settled in for the night watching the clear sky for (and seeing) many shooting stars.


BuonconventoOn the 6th we woke up to some really dense fog. Pea soup doesn't even begin to describe its consistency. We were on top of a hill surrounded by fields but you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. We were in no rush to get to the Meat festival as the initial events were speeches and presentations, in Italian, of a new type of Salami so we whiled away the day playing guitar and generally amusing ourselves. Later we headed down to Buonconvento for walks around the walled town, and everyone we met was really friendly. No-one would let you pass by without a smile and a "Buonjourno". Even when we went for coffee we couldn't help getting chatting to a group of locals, although admittedly they were more interested in Nailz than us! Finally we showed Buonconventoup at the meat tasting session to try the new product - Chiannini pig salami. Chiannini is the local breed of pig, which has it's roots in ancient traditions in this area. It tasted lovely, and we also were able to try some new olive oil which was also nice, if a little more bitter than more "settled" olive oil (when the new oil is made it is a bright green colour but after a few months it turns clear and has its familiar taste). At the session we also got to meet a local wine maker and taste their wares, which was also very pleasing! We had a good chat with Anna Lisa and she kindly gave us a free bottle which we enjoyed with some more Piccorino cheese later back at the van. Lovely.

Lago Trasimeno, Rapolano, Sienna, Colle di Val d'Elsa, San Gimignano,

1st November - 3rd November

Lago Trasimeno

Lago TrasimenoWe took our time moving on from Assisi as the campsite let us check out pretty much whenever we wanted, which was excellent for us. The weather was pretty good too so we were in no hurry. Late in the day we headed in the general direction of Sienna, but on the way we got side-tracked by Lago Trasimeno which is a pretty big lake about halfway between Sienna and Assisi. We found a great spot to park up, specifically for campers and it didn't cost anything as we had arrived late. We were up early the next morning to enjoy the sunrise over the lake.


We were making our way to Sienna when again we got side-tracked and ended up in the Thermal Spa town of Rapolano. We decided to park up for a while and later had a mooch into town. As we were walking into the town centre we saw a group of elderly folk walking slowly down the middle of the road. They were followed by a priest and hearse and another group of younger folk with children in a funeral procession for someone who was obviously well liked. Almost the whole town was marking the passing of a friend and everything came to a standstill they passed, the only sound was the leading of prayer by the priest and the marching of feet. It was quite a touching moment.


Il CampoWe finally made it into Sienna late on and had a look around the town in the fading light. It was a very cute place with a grand sloping semi-circle as the town centre "square". Apparently everyone comes out to sunbathe on it's banks during the summer months. It also has an unusual church which has white and green horizontal stripes, giving the impression that it's made out of lego. We wandered the back streets of the town for a good few hours before heading back to the van for the night, but not before I'd had my local delicacy which I picked up near Assisi. They were really thick sausages with a combination of spices I can only guess at, but which tasted delicious. I'm sorry I can't be more descriptive than that but I was in such a rush to eat them that I destroyed the packaging. Ah well... We also got hold of some of the local cheese, a soft variety called Piccorino which was also very tasty.

Colle di Val d'Elsa

Colle di Val d'ElsaWe pushed off from Sienna the next day and this time headed towards San Gimignano, another place which had been recommended to us on our travels. It was on our way there that we spotted signs for Colle di Val d'Elsa and I just had to insist we checked it out. Rachel kindly humoured me on this. It was another interesting little town and it had it's own special history spending much of it's time either being conquered by one of the nearby, more powerful cities, of Florence and Sienna. As a result it boasts it's own castle and imposing city walls and is a quaint town for a little stroll.

San Gimignano

San GimignanoAfter the little "folly in Colle" we again headed North to San Gimignano, which is now known as the "Medieval Manhatten" on account of it's skyscraper-like towers. The town, in it's heyday had 47 towers, essentially bragging about it's wealth. It now only has 17 remaining but it is still impressive as almost every corner you turn shows you more rectangular blocks stretching up to the sky. Its another quaint place and it is also fiercly proud of it's heritage and local produce of honey and saffron and especially the Vernaccia white wine, grown almost exclusively in the region and enjoyed by Popes throughout the ages (although I have it on good authority the current Pope enjoys a glass of Augustina beer from Munich).

Tuscan countrysideWe have been treated throughout the last few days to the sumptuous views of the Tuscan countryside turning golden in autumn, the rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves turning reddish yellows as winter approaches. San Gimignano was a particularly good vantage point for this as it is perched 334m above sea level with commanding views of the surrounding area, and we had an even more advantageous viewpoint once we had climbed onto the city walls

Monday, 1 November 2010

Solfatara, Rome and Assisi

22nd - 23rd October

Volcano Solfatara

Sunset at SolfataraWe headed out of Pompei and back onto the Autostrade, going beyond Naples, and lots more urban sprawl, to a campsite on the side of a volcanic crater. We arrived at the Volcano Solfatara campsite in the mid afternoon and were soon frolicking about on the crater itself, having parked about twenty metres away from it. It is an extinct volcano, I should add, but it has a very interesting history and is part of an area known as the Phlegran fields. According to the site information, Volcano Solfatara was the mythical entrance to Hell for the Ancient Romans. The Devil apparently lived under the Bocca Grandeyellow rocks with Sulphur deposits which is the largest fumerole in the crater and from this jets of sulphur vapour gushes forth at around 160 degrees centigrade. The rocks around the jets are all reddish-yellow from sulphur deposits. In the middle of the crater there is also a pool of bubbling mud which was used as a treatment for rheumatism, the sulphurous vapours were believed to be beneficial for respiratory illnesses and there was also a spa here in the 1800 for the natural mineral water. It was good fun to walk among the fumeroles and see the mud bubbling away. The Bocca Grande was quite impressive with steam constantly shooting out in no small quantity.

The next morning we got up early to have another walk around the crater before heading off again. This time we were heading to Rome to meet up with Steve, Donna and Mike who had jetted out for a few days to see us. We were able to get into a campsite pretty easily and were soon heading into town on the tram system using our newly purchased travel cards which allowed us free use of the whole public transport system for a week, including the metro. This meant our stay was stress-free and we were able to scoot into town at will knowing the van was being safely looked after on the outskirts of the city.

23rd - 30th October


The ColosseumWe spent the first night trying to find the hotel that Rachel's folks were staying in - which took a bit of finding - but soon Nailz was jumping around like a madman as he recognised them with his tail just a blur. We too were very relieved and excited and we had a really good time catching up with them.

The following two days were jam packed seeing some of the sight of Rome, and although the Rachel's family had to fly back on the 26th, Rachel and I spent a further two days soaking up the city. You really could spend a lifetime wandering round and gazing at all that is on offer in the city, and that's without going to the museums and the seemingly millions of churches. Round ever corner there is something else to catch your eye, so I can only include some of the highlights here.

St Peter's SquareI'll start with the smallest country in the world and of course the home of the Catholic Church, Vatican City. The layout of St Peter's Square, or Piazza San Pietro, is a bit like a keyhole and is said to represent the arms of the Catholic Church being wrapped around the faithful who gather in front of St Peter's for mass. This was going on as we arrived as it was Sunday and we were able to see the Pope appear from his apartment window, which was quite far away. In fact it was hard to tell if it was the pope even using the electronic zoom on the camera.

Inside St Peter's BasilicaRachel and I later went into St Peter's Basilica itself and I found the proportions of the place just staggering. Not only was it huge inside, but the design of the building was very powerful with huge, strong pillars in perfect proportions. The massive Papal altar was also quite intimidating.

We also went to see the Vatican Museums and I could have spent another week in that alone. Room after room of Laocoonincredibly detailed sculptures, walls of maps, ancient artefacts (including mummified remains) from ancient Egypt as well as possibly the two highlights of the whole of Rome for me, which were the Sistine Chapel and the Rafael Rooms. I'd seen pictures of the works in both of these but to see them, the scale, the detail and the colour in person was incredible. I just don't have the skill with words to do them justice. I could have sat and watched them all day for a year.

Michelangelo's Elsewhere in Rome we got to see some of the other more famous sites including the bustling Campidoglio, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We visited some lovely piazzas such as the Campo de' Fiori, and the Piazza Navono. We got to see the iconic gems of Ancient Rome such as the immense Colosseum, and Forums, victory columns and triumphal archways. I enjoyed looking at Michelangelo's "Moses" which is in the San Pietro in Vincoli which is an incredible sculpture. It is also fascinating because there are two horns on his head. This was due to a translation error from the Hebrew Old Testament, they should have been beams of light instead!

Most impressive of the ancient monuments, for me, was the Pantheon, or "Temple of All Gods". From the outside it does Outside the Pantheonnot look hugely impressive, but once you step inside it's very, very cool. The dome, which is not obvious from the outside, that is the largest masonry vault ever built and it was constructed by pouring a mix of concrete and pumice over a wooden support structure. In the centre of Detail in the Rafael Roomsthe enormous dome there is an Oculus which lets in light and rain and also distributes the structural forces created by such a massive amount of concrete. It was a really impressive room to stand in, and again the pictures don't do it justice.

On top of the sights we also spent a good deal of time eating out in the Trattorias of Rome and that too, unsurprisingly for me, was another highlight. Also it was really great to see Steve, Donna and Mike again and share Rome with them (cheers very, very much for flying out). Although I didn't throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, I would definitely come back.

30th October


Basilica di San FrancescoLeaving Rome we headed north on the Via Flaminia, towards the mountain town of Assisi in the Umbria region of Italy and arrived late in the afternoon after a long drive. We were high up on the side of a hill with tremendous views of the valley below and the mountains opposite so we stopped for the night and enjoyed a stroll round the area.
The next day we stopped at a campsite very close to Assisi as it worked out better value to do that than park for the day. After walking the short 1km into town we spent the day having a wonderful stroll around the town where St Francis (and St Clare) was born. We had a look in the wonderful Basilica di San Francesco with it's colourfully frescoed interior. The town itself was incredibly pretty and featured some amazing views of the surrounding countryside.