Bit of a shock coming from the balmy skies of Italy (although it was raining as we took off) to the grey and cooler welcome of Heathrow.
Loading our luggage into a hire car, we set off on our UK road trip, a month of covering a few few kilometres. We spent a couple of quiet days in Salisbury and its surrounds visiting a few distant relatives and getting used to no longer being part of a tour party. Back to being responsible for everything!
We finally got around to visiting the marvel that is Stonehenge. So much still unknown about this feat of engineering, but we do know it was not used for human sacrifice as people so often say! We made the decisions to become English Heritage members when we saw the cost of entry, which I highly recommend if you are going to be traveling in the UK for more than a week or so. It saved us a huge amount of money and also encouraged us to visit sites we may not have thought about ordinarily.
A small detour to the well-preserved Dartmouth Castle was our first one of these sites. Small and fascinating with an excellent tea rooms to boot.
Our first major stop was two nights in a little fishing village in Cornwall called Mevagissey. A tiny town of stone rising up from minuscule cobblestone roads. No allowance for cars, or pedestrians. We watched said pedestrians squeeze themselves into shop doorways to let cars go past on that theoretically two way road. (We got quite good at this one ourselves). Eventually we found our way up the hill to our accommodation looking out over the bay.
The weather wasn’t great but the views and village were fantastic.
We were in Cornwall to catch up with the boy, his girlfriend and her parents. They had managed to secure tickets to the Minack Theatre, so well-rugged up we set out almost all the way down to Lands End to one of the most unique theatres ever built. We were beginning to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn as we began to manoeuvre down narrower and narrower lanes, no street lights or road markings and with only one car following us. Suddenly we emerged into a packed carpark in the middle of nowhere – very surreal. We made our way down the steep stairs to see the theatre literally set into the cliffs of with the Atlantic Ocean crashing beneath. It is a breathtaking sight.
Built into the cliffs 1932 by Rowena Cade and her team of gardeners it remains a thriving venue for drama and music. We watching the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Society romp through The Mikado, with some brilliant changes to the songs where appropriate for 21st Centre England. Sitting huddled together drinking hot chocolates and hearing the surging surf in between the songs was a truly magical experience and well worth the long drive back.
We packed a lot into our second day in Venice. Starting with breakfast on the terrace of our hotel, looking out onto the Grand Canal, I thought I might cry at the beauty of this city. So different to anything I have ever experienced. I could have sat there all day but I’m glad I didn’t.
Venice is complicated. Obviously reliant on tourism but also being damaged by tourism. There were two enormous cruise ships looming while we were there. The problem with cruise ships is they dock, disgorge passengers for a day and then leave. They cause huge damage to the fragile buildings and eco-system but provide enormous income. Here’s a link to an interesting Guardian article published a few days after we left which sums it up very well. It’s hard to work out the best answers as, like so many other people, we wanted to experience the magic that is Venice. How do you decide who can come and how many? At least we were staying a couple of days and spending money outside of the set tourist attractions – I hope that’s better than staying on a floating hotel for a day, visiting St Mark’s Square and then leaving?
We spent the morning in the Doge’s Palace with the delightful Daniella as our guide. A passionate Venetian, she recreated the political and social history of Venice as we drank in the incredible art and scope of this building. Was wonderful to cross the Bridge of Sighs after visiting the Cambridge one last year ( with its slightly less ominous tradition of crossing to sit exams).
Then off to Murano for a glassblowing demonstration and a chance to buy some of the beautiful glass on display ( some Christmas presents were sorted!).
The afternoon was spent at the beautiful island of Burano. Think of a laid-back mini Venice! Apparently Michelle Obama has been here – good choice by her. Brightly coloured houses with fabrics billowing over the front doors, tiny canals criss-crossing everywhere . Just beautiful. One of my favourite places in Italy.
Sadly the next morning was time to leave Venice and indeed Italy. I definitely want to come back and spend more time in the areas we fell in love with. We lingered over breakfast for as long as possible until we had to leave via speedboat. Wayne’s suitcase was precariously balanced on the top of a pile of others. I was convince it was going for to fly off into the sea! But we made it safely to the airport dock and far too soon were sitting on a plane to the UK. A whole new series of adventures to come.
We came across from Rapello through Verona. I liked Verona very much although passed on the option to eat horse or donkey ragu, instead enjoying an excellent seafood pasta.
After what seemed like forever we finally pulled up at the wharf and farewelled our faithful coach and awesome driver.
Like many people Venice is somewhere I have always fantastised about going. The concept of a seemingly floating city, the canals, the gondalas, the Grand Canal, the history. I was a bit worried that it would be a single idea destination – but the longer we stayed there (and it was sadly a brief visit) the more we fell under its spell.
We did the classic arrival in style via a James Bondesque speedboat to our hotel on the Grand Canal.
Old world and ornate but slightly shabby, it was a perfect place to set up base. We arrived in the late afternoon so only had time for a gondala ride on the first evening. You can see from one of the photos that we had a wee bit of a gondola traffic jam. Great fun and the perfect way to be introduced to Venice as the sun started to set. We peeled off from the group afterwards, had a pizza just off St Mark’s Square and checked out some of the amazing shops in the ever narrower side streets. It was just about closing time so we knew would would have to come back later.
Really regretting having to use my phone camera as Venice is a photographers’ paradise. The combination of the buildings and that famous luminosity of the light takes your breath away.
I’m going to jump ahead (will write about Pisa and Florence in a later entry hopefully) to a day I had been looking forward to very very much – visiting the famed Cinque Terre.
We were treated to a beautiful view of the bay as we headed to Cinque Terre. On the way our tour guide discussed the issues facing this unique area. While to a visitor it looks exotic and romantic, this is not a life that has appealed to the young of the villages. Toiling on vertical cliffs in harsh conditions to produce the wine and produce of the region has not been appealing to the majority of the young people and many of the vineyards struggle to find workers. Yet there is some good news as the trend towards locally produced and sustainable produce has started to bring new life back into ancient cottage industries.
Obviously tourism is a huge part of the local economy and this has lead to many discussion on how to protect this fragile area. The Italian government are looking at restricting the numbers of people who can visit each year in an effort to cut down the 2.5 million annual tourists. It is a difficult problem as obviously everyone wants to come here and the tourist dollar injects vital life into the economy, but it almost impossible for the locals to go about their daily lives.
We spent some time in the exquisite Manarola and then travelled to Monteroso by ferry so didn’t get to stop at the middle villages but we could see the crowds of people at each one. Lots of people swimming which was frustrating as we didn’t have any swimming gear with us! The ferry was very hot and overcrowded but we managed to get a seat in the sea breeze on the upper deck and enjoy. The spectacular views.
On arrival in Monteroso we were left to our own devices for lunch and we found a tiny restaurant where they cooked delicious seafood in a compact open kitchen. Beautiful scampi risotto still sizzling as it arrived at the table. Then we wandered round the medieval square a bit, rolled up our shorts and paddled in the ocean. It was warm, crystal clear and incredibly salty. Sadly time was up way to soon and we had to head to the train to get back to our coach.
Photos below are a hodge pudge of the day, hope they give some sense of how special this part of the world is.
A low-key but lovely morning was spent getting our sleeves rolled up and cooking our own lunch. We did this in the midst of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscape – it was almost impossible to tear our eyes and cameras away from the scenery stretching out in front of us to go inside.
A simple menu of bread salad, pasta with vegetable ragu and tiramisu kept us concentrating for the morning. We got to keep the recipes as well, so once I am home I’ll probably make some of the menu again and post the recipes if they still taste this yummy!
It’s easy to forget how easy it is to throw together perfect silky smooth pasta, even without the help of a pasta rolling machine. We were a mixed group cooking skills-wise, so the cooking school did well to keep everyone happy and also make sure we served ourselves edible food.
The meal was matched perfectly with accompanying wines as the cooking school was (surprise surprise) attached to a vineyard. We treated ourselves to a beautiful red and I also bought myself a tee-shirt with this beautiful quote from Galileo Galilei.
Wine is sunlight, held together by water
The beautiful villa where Machiavelli was under house arrest, spending his time writing , fuming and plotting – now a wonderful vineyard. The house still has much still intact from Machiavelli’s time including some magnificent furniture. For us it was a chance to absorb yet more history, check out some local wine, sample some local food, and relax in the perfect afternoon sun. Not quite sure how I am going to go back to my ordinary existence!
(A very random aside. Those of you who are Black Books fans will appreciate my photo of the cheap and dusty wine! )