Sirmione, Lake Garda

Lake Garda is so large and so Mediterranean in climate, we feel there might be a boat waiting for us. Yet while there were only ferries, we were still happy on the water. We only travelled to the lower lake because there aren’t ferries going everywhere and returning on the same day.

Lake Garda, Italy

When you are deciding where to stay, if you are getting about without a car, then our suggestion would be in the Centro Storico or Old Town. Sirmione’s Centro  has Roman ruins, museums and castles. The castle even has a drawbridge, which incites a romantic notion of knights and jousts. The swans gliding through the moat was quite picturesque.

 

Probably the best way to arrive at Sirmione is to take the train to Desenzano del garde, the bus down the hill and jump on the ferry to Sirmione. Unless you come by ferry from another town, this would seem the best option. Once you know when your ferry departs, if you have time, you can have a coffee or some wonderful gelato in the piazza.

There is a spa that you can visit and also you can walk or take the Nonno’s train to the Roman ruins. Catullus is said to have had a villa here. He certainly seems to write a poem about coming back to the peninsula of Sirmioni.

Bardolino

Every night there seemed to be a free concert both of a more classical style and also jazz on the beach full of drums and even a didgeridoo.  In the evening a lot of the crowds would leave and it was wonderful to wait and stroll around town from cafe to music. Like Catullus, we might try to write a poem about returning to Sirmioni.

Feeling happy escaping the crowds, we would walk and wander waiting for the twilight. More on the Roman Villa tomorrow.

 

 

Çesky Krumlov

The meandering Vltava River

 

Çesky Krumlov was mentioned almost every time we mentioned we were going to Prague. I would hear “it’s delightful” and I would say “interesting, what is so delightful about Çesky Krumlov?” Almost no one answered, but now when I recommend it, I can tell you why it is the second most visited village in Czechoslovakia. This medieval village is seriously photogenic, historic, arty and the food was wonderful. It is the village you have to plan to visit and it takes more than just jumping on a train to get here. We left Prague on one bus, then another, travelled for over two hours and just managed to get the bus driver to let us off at the correct spot.

View from the Castle

After a wander around the town, it was wonderful to go through the castle. Not all three hundred rooms but enough to see what splendour the former royalty lived in. The water coloured tower is the beginning of the castle.

There is a splendid archway to link the Castle and the Theatre.

Archway between Castle and Theatre in Çesky Krumlov

This UNESCO World Heritage site is so picturesque and so green. The medieval towers, buildings and bridges are quite lovely. We also love the idea of local ales and wines. Our favourite sign was Fairy Tale House Puppets and Wine.

There were art galleries on every corner and several types of art. So if you find yourself in Prague, add a brief interlude in Çesky Krumlov, enjoy the meandering River Vltava and trust that you will have a delightful time.

 

 

Old Town, New Town Prague

 

Charles Bridge from the water

The Charles Bridge is beautiful with numerous grand religious statues on its edges. I have used this photo of the bridge because so many of the people on the bridge are taking selfies and others have photographers doing glamour shoots. These are mainly young women with boyfriends looking on. It is quite remarkable. In fact, for some, it isn’t a photo of the Charles Bridge or the Stare Mesto or a cathedral unless you are posed in front of it. Prague is such a fairy tale setting, they have come to a wonderful spot. The bridge was built in 1357 for Charles IV, the first bridge to cross the River Vltava.

James, Pavla and Pari in Old Town Prague

One of the best ways to see Prague is to do a tour and we were so lucky to have Pavla from Premiant tours to take three of us up hills and on the river giving us history, sharing information and answering questions. Prague is a University town and if Pavla’s passion and knowledge about Prague, history and art were generated with free university, than I think that affordable education is very worthwhile.

We started in the Old Town and wandered through the Jewish Quarter and had a cruise on the river, then we went up to Prague Castle and further up to gardens and the Strahov Monastery. The monks are back and they seem to have brought back a sense of humour with them. If you didn’t know Czech people are very fond of an ale or beer. In fact, Budweiser beer was first brewed here. But the monks of St Norbert have their own take on drinking. Does anyone else see a zombie theme with the Autumn Dark Lager?

Delivery van in front of the monastery.

Once you pass through a narrow lane, you walk down the to the walls of the monastery and there is a wonderful outlook back over Old Town, red tile roofs fill the foreground and the dome and belfry of Church of St Nicholas are easy to spot. Further on I can see the spires of the Tyn Church and to its right, Stare Mesto. There are other spires and churches but I can’t name them all. The architecture in Prague is easy to see and ranges from Gothic to Renaissance and Romanesque to Baroque and Modern.

Red tiles roofs with the Church of St Nicholas with its dome and belfry

St Vitus’s Cathedral and the Tyn Church are  probably the easiest Gothic architecture to discover. You possibly couldn’t miss them. The Royal Garden takes more investigation to find and has a building with Renaissance sgraffito which is magnificent.

Isn’t this sublime, like a fine piece of lace. Tulips came here before they came to Holland. I think that would be another story all together.

 

 

 

Montepulciano and Pienza

Wine country, Etruscans, hilltop villages, green Italy and a perfectly transformed Renaissance village are all covered in today’s blog.

As you travel through the vines, sunflower farms and rolling hills lush with vegetation and crops, you see green Italy, not one of stone and concrete but another Italy altogether. Many of the vines are of the Montepulciano Vino Nobile grape and are some of Italy’s best wines.  They even had Montepulciano plums at our agriturismo. Montepulciano is a hilltop town and its roots go back to the ancient Etruscans.

The well in the Piazza Grande, Montepulciano
The well in the Piazza Grande, Montepulciano

On our second day in the area, we drove into the countryside to visit Pienza, a town created by Pope Pius ll. Beginning in 1458, Pius ll worked with the Florentine architect, Bernardo Rossellino to create a city model that was laid out in an orderly, pleasing and rational manner.It was a town where urban décor would benefit the citizens. He included new areas for the needy, so they could share in the bounty. He was a truly humanist Pope, standing up against slavery and the persecution of Jews.

Pizena
Pizena
Tuscan hillsides
Tuscan hillsides

Most of us have passed bakeries, where the aromas are pushed out into the noses of passersby to entice them into the shop.  In Pienza, the cheese shop had a fan sending out aromatic scents to pull you into their shop. Pienza is noted for its Pecorino cheese. Also known as cacio, it is made from sheep’s milk.  The sheep feed on the verdant hillsides eating aromatic herbs like it thyme, penny royal and absinthe.

The smell of cheese was everywhere
The smell of cheese was everywhere

There was also large amounts of art, including giant bracelets and rings.

giant ring sculpture near reclining nude on swing
giant ring sculpture near reclining nude on swing

When in Italy, you read about the Etruscans and if you Google them, the story will begin “Their language didn’t survive, so we know nothing about them, but they were an elegant people.” Now with DNA samples, we may see that the Etruscans (Eighth century BC- First century AD) came from the western Anatolia, near Izmir in Turkey. The Etruscans are fascinating because ‘elegant and mysterious’ suggests a people of Bond men. But in the Etruscans’ case, women had a significant role to play in daily life. The Etruscans were also great artists and seem to be the ‘creators’ of the famous hilltop towns in Tuscany and Umbria. Italy’s history goes back beyond the Romans.

The geneticists did not stop with testing ancient Etruscan DNA, but they also tested cow DNA in the region and found a match with Tuscan bovine DNA in the same area of Western Anatolia. Beef is a food of choice in Tuscany and Umbria.

An angel cow
An angel cow

As we left this area, we saw sunflower farms, some almost fully ripe and others that had just been planted. They are joyous to see and enjoy.

Tuscan sunflowers
Tuscan sunflowers

Next trip we will stay in some of the hilltop towns, but staying in the country also has it’s benefits.

Bagni di Lucca and the Grotto of the Winds

We had two thoughts after leaving Genoa. Where can we go that won’t find us competing with the bus tour groups that are Italy’s typical summer fare? (Apologies to the Umbrella ladies) Let’s type into Google: “Back roads of Tuscany and Umbria”.

Then we found Bagni di Lucca, small and quiet in a valley close to Lucca. Bound to be quieter and cooler in a mountain valley, right?  First, if you type in Back roads into Google, when you go to Google maps, be careful because it has heard you want back roads and it takes you that way.  We were on some very obscure roads between Genoa and Poggibonsi, where we first lost phone signal and started using signs, drove for miles on a barely paved road to a wonderful café, but turns out it was only open for dinner. Look at a map for Lucignano d’Asso or Ristorante Casa Bandini, Poggibononsi.  In Montereggio, we finally found a place to eat and got back on the auto strada. We knew we were close to Bagni di Lucca, when we passed the bridge Pont de la Madeleine

Pont San Madeleine Bridge
Pont San Madeleine Bridge

Bagni di Lucca might be just a little too quiet, perfect for private parties and weddings, but you would want to expect a very quiet time here. What was perfect for us, is that the best local restaurant created dining a la strada otherwise known as “Let’s close the road and put the tables outside, because it is just to damn hot.” They had  excellent live music each evening, everyone was was there.  There is no air conditioning in this part of Italy and it seemed imminently sensible to just divert the traffic. The weather cools off as soon as the sun goes down, everyone was happy.

new definition of Street Food
new definition of Street Food

Knowing the next day was going to be hotter still, a drive to Garfagnana and the Cave of the winds, where it is 10.7 C all year round. It was a great drive, we felt like we were in Switzerland and a two hour tour of the Caves in cool, ultra-healthy air was sensational.

Grotto Sul Velo
Grotto del Vento

 

Town in the Apuan Alps in Northwest Tuscany
Fornovolasco in the Apuan Alps in Northwest Tuscany

If you do go to Bagni di Lucca, go in June or September, because there are plenty of walks. We followed the passegiata there, that Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning would stroll. For my return, I will be heading back to Garfagnana.

Poet's passegiata in Bagni di Lucca
Poet’s passegiata in Bagni di Lucca

Favourite Sons – Portoferraio, Elba

There are some remarkable places in Italy, the island of Elba is quite interesting, historic and gorgeous.

First of all, this island is so full of iron that one can not rely on a compass for a true reading. Climbing up to Fort Falcone, one of three fortresses protecting this city, you can see the earth is rusty with iron. The Etruscans mined here, the Romans vacationed here and Cosimo built forts hereto protect his iron mines.

Iron in Fort Falcone
Iron in Fort Falcone

The two favourite sons of Portoferraio are Cosimo l de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, founder of Portoferraio and Napoleon who was a prisoner here and spent every moment on Elba trying to escape.

Napoleon's Villa dei Mulini
Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini

I am not sure I would spend my time trying to escape from this paradise, but Napoleon certainly did. He is said to have written on one wall: “Napoleon can be happy anywhere.” Seriously?  Most of us would be very happy to spend a few years here.

Watch Tower from Cosimo's fort
Watch Tower from Cosimo’s fort

Like Sydney, Portoferraio has a Martello tower, built by Cosimo, to protect the entrance to the small harbour.  A fleet of pirates came and terrorised the populace and may have been the impetus behind all of these forts being built. Heikell said it was a fleet of 42 sail. This is more than my mind’s eye conjures up when talking about a pirate raid of about three ships.

Bay of Portoferraio with Martello tower, Tower della Linguella at the entrance
Bay of Portoferraio with Tower della Linguella at the entrance

Most visitors come for the beautiful beaches in and around Portferraio, others go fishing. We walked up to the Tower Falcone and the museum, watched the very fast three man soccer set up in nets, in the piazza, while we ate our gelato. We would be happy to come and visit again in a few years.

Paestum of Magna Graecia

Mosquitoes drive us all crazy, waking us in the middle of the night by buzzing and biting us.  They were a scourge in antiquity too, closing down Caunus and Roman cities like Ostia Antica and Paestum. The mosquitoes carried the malaria that made living in these ancient cities impossible.

Temple of Hera
Greek Temple of Hera

The ancient ruins are Paestum were never covered or collapsed, the area silted up and the malaria kept everyone away for millennium. These ruins from the Magna Graecia were rediscovered in the mid-19th Century and became a destination on the Grand Tour, so popular with the educated young men of that time.

The Comitium
The Comitium
Selfies are the order of the day in Paestum
Selfies are the order of the day in Paestum

The temples are so beautiful, that it comes as a surprise that they were likely painted in white, red and black. There is a discussion of painting part of the temples to provide an insight as to how Paestum would have actually looked at the time. I think the Sydney Vivid team would do an excellent job.

Temple of Neptune or Poseidon
Temple of Neptune or Poseidon
There aren't large crowds at Paestum. It is a bucolic  place.
There aren’t large crowds at Paestum, Doric columns abound though.

The Pasteum museum is a small but perfectly formed museum.  It is full of artifacts like tombs, including Diving Boy tomb found nearby, amphorae and votive offerings. One of the areas important economic activities are water buffalo dairy farms. There is an old sepia photo of the water buffaloes grazing underneath the temples c 1910. You can smell their presence.

They love Schubert and Brahms and they make great cheese.
They love Schubert and Brahms and they make great cheese.

 

Campania and the Amalfi Coast

Fifteen years ago, James and I stayed in Positano; we thought it was magical. However, trying to find rooms for eleven of us, the best value seemed to be in Minori or Maiori. We all found Minori to be less touristy and very friendly. Minori was more like the Amalfi and Positano we visited fifteen years ago. If I was going five-star, I would prefer Ravello but given our budget Minori was perfect.

Amalfi Coast
Amalfi Coast

Ravello is just an hour’s walk up the hill, but quite a steep lung buster according to Miriam, Ed and Frank. It is incredibly scenic as James, Barbara and I can attest to, as we walked down to Minori after a scrumptious lunch at Enotavola Wine Bar at Palazzo Della Marra in Ravello. Matt and Joseph ran up and ran down; steepness was no barrier for the incredibly fit twins.

View from the Villa Rudolfo
View from the Villa Rudolfo

Ravello was the site of several weddings and we saw bridal fashion from demure to haute couture. The heels were six inches high but the outfits were amazing.

Natalie Chapman, is this wedding wear?
Natalie Chapman, is this wedding wear?

The music festival had not quite started but the stage was set up at the Villa Rudolfo and there were several members of the Ravello Vista Social Club playing wonderful songs and singing. There was an amazing Sonica  gallery of photos of musicians by a musician, Guido Harari at Villa Rudolfo too. Villa Cimbrone was the site of lush gardens and pleasant walks.

Ravello muscian and singers
Ravello muscian and singers

There is plenty to do in Campania, a guided tour of Pompeii was educational and fast paced.  We could see Vesuvius in the background and we were happy to note there was no smoke or activity.

Side trip to Pompeii
Side trip to Pompeii
Walking down to Minori
View from Ravello

Everyday we fall a bit more in love with Campania.

Saracen Towers and beautiful vistas

We have sailed into Salerno this morning, a quick easy motor.  James and Frosty polished the stainless, just in case Swanny did a surprise inspection. Mercier looks pretty good now. Just a bit of cleaning, laundry and TLC before the DeAngelo clan of New York meets the D’Angelo clan of Giffoni. Blame the slight name change on Ellis Island, but it is very minor.

So on the way up the coast, we have seen some lovely vistas and also a surfeit of watchtowers – mainly Saracen towers to alert the communities when the Saracen slave traders were coming, so they could escape up to a fortress.

Saracen Tower
Saracen Tower, volcanic earth

Allora, the Italian coast is beautiful, maybe greener than we have seen before and the water is azure blue. The soil seems to be volcanic or limestone and so stone buildings and stairs are everywhere.

In Agropoli, we asked for directions for happy hour and Aperol Spritz and we were directed to a wide street at the bottom of a long wide staircase, with a bridal limousine at the bottom. The bride and groom were radiant in the setting sun.

The bride and groom in Agropoli
The bride and groom in Agropoli
Agropoli Hill top town
Agropoli Hill top over the harbour

Afterwards we went out for pizza near the Porto Turistico, where Mercier was moored and watched the incredible sunset.

hmm. nice pizza but Frosty's expresso came in a small blue plastic cup?
hmm. nice pizza but Frosty’s expresso came in a small blue plastic cup. That’s the Amalfi coast in the distance.

The sunset was sensational. Ever since I said sunset photos were boring, I have seen a few good ones.

Agropoli Sunset
Agropoli Sunset – Amalfi Coast in the distance

 

Messina Straits to Tropea

Two years ago, we sailed from the Aeolian Islands through the Messina Straits going south.  This morning at 6:30am we sailed the straits going north, sailing from Reggio to Tropea. The Strait is 20 miles long and from 2 to 10 miles wide, funneling the Ionian Sea into the Tyrrhenian Sea and vice versa.  You are able to see the energy in the water. look long enough and you are bound to see a whirlpool forming. We began so early because we knew the current would be flowing south by 7:30am, 4.5 hours after high tide in Gibraltar.

Frosty was a bit skeptical at being underway by 6:30 am, even with a Nespresso in his hand but soon we were surrounded by the ‘passarelles’ or felucas, for the swordfish fisherman. Watching them move towards a sword fish at a rate of knots is quite startling.

Felluca or passarelle, a swordfishing boat
Felluca or passarelle, a swordfishing boat

The boats are about 40 feet long and the mast is about 50 feet high and the skipper steers from that lofty position.

Captain and first mate up 50 feet into the air, Messina Straits
Captain and first mate up 50 feet into the air, Messina Straits
The harpooner walking out on the passerelle
The harpooner walking out on the passarelle. Look at the rooster tail.

After getting through the Messina Straits with a sighting of one swordfish( or was it a tuna?), a slight whirlpool trying to form and quite a bit of current. We sailed up the coast to Porto di Tropea.  Only 30 miles from the Aeolian Islands and a charming, neo-classical town, in a slight state of ruin, there is a lot to like.  The outstanding feature has to be the beaches. Surrounded by tufa, the beaches are superb. Odysseus never talks about beaches, does he? The beaches here are sensational. There were incredible beaches up the coast from Reggio di Calabria.

Tropea Beach, Calabria
a Tropea Beach,  Calabria

I tried to get James and Frosty smiling while in the Messina Straits, but in that photo they looked liked they had seen Charybdis. They liked the beach though.

Beautiful beaches
Beautiful beaches

Our journey so far (sorry, you have to copy & paste the link)

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