Two days in Venice is not enough (part one)

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.

 

 

 

Beautiful Cinque Terre

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.










Galileo said it perfectly

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 

Perfect!

A vineyard with serious history

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! )

Tuscan meanderings

I’m quite behind in keeping up to date with everything we have been doing so will do a few mainly photographic entries in an attempt to catch up. This is the downside of packing so much into a holiday! 

The beautiful town of Assisi, home of St Francis was our next stop. As in the Sistine Chapel  there was no photography allowed inside. Instead we walked, marvelled, and listened to our guide tell the story of an amazing man whose Christian walk is as powerful and challenging today as it must have been all those centuries ago. There is something that lifts the soul as you wander this ancient hilltop city, a sense of the continuity of the family of faith.





Then an overnight stay in the beautiful town of Perugia. We decided to skip the organised tour of the town and had a peaceful evening watching the sunset while enjoying cocktails.




One of my favorite places so far has been our next stop, the hilltop town of San Gigminano. Just ancient and beautiful. I can’t explain how content it makes me feel to spend time visiting these towns, wandering these cobblestone streets and seeing the sun-soaked buildings. Coming from such a young country it’s as though I have been starved for this feeling of history and antiquity. We only had an afternoon but had plenty of time to sit in the sun, eat wild boar ragu and smooth creamy gelato. 







From Pompeii to Capri

A sensory overload already and we have only been here a few days. 

Early start onto the coach that will become very familiar over the next little while.

First stop Pompeii. A stunning day with Vesuvius looking peaceful and benign. Impossible to imagine it smoking and roaring. Today several million people live in neighboring Naples and more than 600 000 on its slopes. The trade-off for beautiful fertile soil is the possibility of another eruption. Not sure I could do it, but when the inhabitants of the region were offered relocation  in 2003 , very few people took up the offer. 

Today fortunately it slumbered on as we walked the streets of Pompeii. Theatres, shops, brothels, houses, public baths, a bustling city silenced forever; now full of curious tourists bringing an odd new life to the streets. Most of the heartbreaking plaster reconstructions of the bodies are out on loan but we did see one desperate frozen figure, head forever buried in his arms. Only too easy to imagine the terror he must have felt. 



Feeling fairly somber we headed to catch the ferry to Capri. A world apart from the tomb of Pompeii, the wharf at Capri was packed beyond belief with sunburnt and  over-tired holiday-makers returning home (some issue with the boats not sailing due to the weather, and no idea of on the part of the officials as to how to solve the ensuing chaos). Pushing our way through the crowds, in genuine danger of being pushed into the water, we clambered with relief into our open air taxi.



My own relief was short-lived when I realised we were heading up to Ana Capri, over the crazily high viaduct ( you can just make it out in the photo below, taken as I muttered ‘you have got to be joking’). Wayne reassuring me I would be fine, I reluctantly got in the car, feeling sick to my stomach.I don’t have any control over when my vertigo will strike (although I can pick when it might happen) it’s quite like a panic attack and very scary.  Fortunately for me the adrenaline rush won over vertigo. If we had stopped anywhere on the mountain I would however have been a quivering mess! Hopefully the hurriedly snapped shot and the video below give a little idea of the trip we would end up making several times up and down the road. 
​​

Our hotel was beautiful (arriving in one piece was a bonus) and it was a delight to jump into the swimming pool – the first of our entire trip! Gorgeous views out over to the mainland.

Capri itself was a chaotic and beautiful mix of crowds, traffic insanity, sophistication and style. Scooters, buses, three-wheeled trucks, cyclists and pedestrians all competing for the same spot on roads designed for a much less busy time.  Super yachts thrown casually into ocean moorings, designer labels sold from tiny ancient shops – I expected to see models and movie stars round every corner. We were enchanted and vaguely bemused and decided we couldn’t  imagine living here.

 Over the course of our two days we explored the island, avoided getting run over, did some shopping, ate gelato and wandered around in the rain. The sea around Capri is a combination of the most beautiful shades of blue that I could not get enough of as we enjoyed a cruise around some of the grottos and the Faraglioni despite the weather packing in. 



Then up the hill on the funicular for more spectacular vistas.



I even managed to stand right up against the railings (briefly) when we visited the Gardens of Caesar Augustus. As you can see by my smile, today was a victory over vertigo! Might seem like a small thing but I’ve had to stare down vertigo a few times this trip. The alternative is to stay down at the bottom of these climbs and miss the view, and I am determined to not resort to that!

All too soon we were throwing our bags back on the ferry and farewelling this enchanting island. Once back on dry land we were soon heading up to Umbria. 

A taste of Rome

And finally we get to Italy. 

I’m a bit behind in my chronicles as our days are so packed! Lots of photos to help remember and tell the story. As I’m sure most people have found on trips like these, there’s a fine line between taking the photos you want and taking so many you miss the actual experience. I’m not a big selfie taker but I deliberately chose one for the featured image for this post as I wanted to record how happy we are to be here despite my genuine dislike of seeing myself in a photo. (I generally try to take photos where I can get the shot with no people visible at all – not sure that will be particularly easy in such a tourist destination.)

What I am missing is a good camera! Hats off to my iPhone for taking some pretty good shots but I am aware of the opportunities I am not getting.

Our hotel was old and gracious. I felt very underdressed in my jeans and tee shirt but that did seem to be what everyone else was wearing as well so I didn’t dress up to match the decor.


We met the rest of our tour party who would be our companions for the next 12 days. To be honest they were a little older than I had been expecting – we are definitely among the younger people. The first of many caprese salads and pizza for dinner, some great introductory conversations, and then an early night as we had to be up very early the next morning.
We had been fortunate enough to be given access to the Sistine Chapel before it opened to the public. So, feeling a little guilty, we walked past the already waiting crowds and wandered through an empty Vatican Museum before entering the chapel itself. So much beauty in these corridors, every inch of them lavishly decorated.


No photos allowed in the Chapel itself, which is fitting for such a monument to the creativity of man and the glory of God. Like everyone else I was familiar with the iconic image of God reaching out to touch Adam, but that is just a small price of the endless ceiling and walls, every inch overhead and to the side packed with the narrative of the relationship between God and His creation. As there were so few people in the chapel we had plenty of time to sit and focus on individual panels.

Our time was up all too soon and we walked back through corridors of Papal treasures, down the beautiful spiral walkway and back into the modern world of cars, horns and throngs of people. 


We then headed to the Colesseum  (I did say it was a taste of Rome). A bonus was being allowed to enter through the gladiator stage which is an entrance not usually used. Very humbling to hear that the entrance and exit system was so sophisticated that they could clear the 70000 seat auditorium faster than we could empty a similar sized one today. Even with the crowds and the obligatory gift shop selling every possible Colesseum souvenir possible, it was very easy to imagine it in its prime.


We decided to skip the last of the afternoon planned activities and wandered the streets, dipping our hands in the Trevi Fountain, eating prosciutto platters and gelato and engaging in a bit of shopping. Loved the creative parking in the insanely crowded streets!


A quick dinner in a cute street-side cafe was rapidly moved indoors as the skies suddenly erupted with thunder and lightening.The rose sellers instantly becameumbrella sellers! Tried out my fledgling Italian on the waiter but like so manyEuropeans  he spoke perfect English.

What a crazy start to our trip! I still can’t believe I am here. Feeling the weight of thousands of years of art, culture and philosophy is almost too much to take in (hence the shopping break this afternoon!)

Heading to Pompeii and Capri tomorrow – the adventure continues…