Avignon (Provence), France – Feb 2018

The journey from Taradeau was fine (mostly motorway) until I reached the walled city of Avignon itself. The campsite I was heading for is just outside the walled city on the Ile de Barthelesse and my (not so) trusty sat-nav insisted on taking me through the walled city with all it’s narrow lanes. It wouldn’t have been so bad and I could perhaps have made it except that it was Wednesday and much of the city is closed to vehicles on a Wednesday (or at least on this particular Wednesday):

After driving around the narrow lanes for a while (using bus lanes when I ran out of road) I gave up on the sat-nav and followed my instinct (and a road sign) to the Ile de Barthelesse. For all it’s smug superiority and foreign languages, the sat-nav cannot recognise the days of the week. Hah! One up to me.

Avignon is lovely. France is lovely.

Avignon on the Rhone. The (part) bridge is the 12th Century Pont St Benezet (sometimes known as the Bridge of Abignon). 18 of it’s 22 spans were washed away in the 17th Century and it has been left that way

Crossing over from the Ile de Barthelesse (using a more complete bridge), the most prominent of all the buildings in the old town are the two standing alongside each other on the Place du Palais; the Cathedral Notre Dame des Doms with it’s guilded Virgin Mary  and the 14th Century Palais des Papes (another Unesco World Heritage Site) built to accommodate  the pope and his entourage after the newly elected pope Clement V chose to stay in his home country rather than move to the (then) wholly corrupt city of Rome:

… above, the Palais des Papes (plural because a number of subsequent popes, another 6 I think, preferred Avignon to Rome) and, below, it’s immediate neighbour the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms with the guilded Virgin Mary watching over Avignon…

Views across the city from the Palais…

There are other impressive churches to see in Avignon; principal among them being the Basilique Saint Pierre d’Avignon, the Eglise St Didier and the Protestant St Martial Temple but I had seen enough churches in Italy to last a lifetime and the rest of my day in Avignon was spent perusing Les Halles (a large covered market with just about every food you could imagine – local chefs attend the market every Saturday morning and give free cookery lessons) and sitting outside a cafe doing what should be done when the sun is shining namely, drinking coffee and watching people go about their daily life. You can’t beat it.

Having said that, I’m going to make an observation (in the form of a question). Has anyone ever had a decent cup of coffee in France?

Taradeau (Provence), France – Feb 2018

I left Sestri Levante intending to make one further halt in Italy, 120 miles away in San Remo, either for a late lunch or even to overnight depending on what San Remo has to offer. After a straight forward journey in wonderful sunshine I arrived in San Remo as a thunderstorm started. When moments later it started to hail, I set off towards my fall back destination, Monaco. It was snowing as I drove through Monaco and I didn’t even pause for a coffee – do you blame me?

Into France, past Nice and Cannes where there was heavy rain, westward towards the blue sky. I even passed Antibes without stopping and that place was one to visit for the Absinthe alone. To get to my age and never have tasted Absinthe is not right.

… San Remo and Monaco – I’ll let you know. I remember the days in the Balkans and in Greece when I would simply move the Van to where the sun was expected to be

Anyway, I stopped at Taradeau in Provence, a town of less than 2,000 people, and there’s nothing there to talk about (although the Provence countryside is beautiful and the people very friendly) except; the sun shone and I chilled for the best part of 2 days. I tell a lie – there was a Hyper U Supermarket and lots of other shops; probably the best range of foodstuffs I have seen in months. I grabbed a supermarket trolley and I was like a kid at Christmas.

The food that first night was tremendous. Lots of little hors d’oeuvres, a full plate of fresh prawns the size of small lobsters and then, best of all:

… Toulouse Sausage in a French Stick followed by Pecorino cheese with a fine Chianti Reserve

Nothing else to report because I have done nothing but sit outside in the sun. I head off to Avignon tomorrow.

Rapallo, St Margherita, Portofino (Liguria), Italy – Feb 2018

Today started somewhat inauspiciously but turned out well. I was to get a train from Sestri Levante to Camogli (at the northern end of the Portofino Peninsula) and then hike some 3+ hours across the peninsula to the San Fruttuoso Abbey (the Abbey can only be reached by foot or by sea) before getting a ferry back to Camogli and then the train to Sestri Levante.

I had bought the train tickets and was en route to Camogli when a local, bless him, explained that the ferries don’t operate in the winter and that my only alternative would be to charter a boat (very expensive). Immediate change of plan. I thanked the man, got off the train at Rapallo (which is located at the southern end of the Portofino Peninsula) and elected instead to check out Rapallo and then the two other small towns on the southern end of the Peninsula, Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure, before taking the train back to Sestri Levante.  Camogli and the Abbey will have wait. Shame, Camogli sounds special and there’s an interesting dive off San Fruttuoso:

… the above photo (not mine) is of Christ of the Abyss, made in bronze and submerged off San Fruttuoso near where Dario Gonzatti drowned (the first Italian to use SCUBA). Could be a good dive.  A second statue, cast from the same mold, is off St George’s, Grenada (a gift of the Italian Navy for help in rescuing the crew of a stricken vessel) and a third bought by the US in 1965 was placed off Key Largo, Florida

… Sod’s Law. To date, everywhere I have been, the dive schools have been closed. Today I learn about Christ of the Abyss and I come across two schools operating out of Rapallo, one leaving to dive the Abyss as I arrive and the other preparing for a wreck dive

Rapallo seems a lively place and would probably have made a better base to explore the area from than Sestri Levante.  There was far more activity on the seafront than you would normally expect of a Sunday morning and the place seemed to be gearing up for a carnival of sorts (large families and every woman and her dog was out – it seems to be the women who walk the dogs here) but I didn’t have time to wait. I estimated it would take up to 3 hours to walk to Portofino and back and if I allowed myself half an hour in Santa Margherita Ligure and another 2 hours (including lunch) in Portofino, I would be back in Rapallo by mid afternoon to catch whatever has been planned and, in any event, have a proper look around.

… most of the way, first to Santa Margherita Ligure and then Portofino, there’s an easy footpath that hugs the coast. Even where there is no path, the road (especially the part after Santa Margherita) is virtually deserted because only local traffic may park in Portofino

I reached Santa Margherita within 25 minutes of leaving Rapallo:

… Santa Margherita Ligure (SML)

SML and Rapallo are alike in some respects, although Rapallo is larger. Both have a small castle. Both are long established fishing ports (although the fishing fleets of each now form a very small proportion of the boats in the increasingly large marinas) and the crystal clear bay of each is lined with palms and old fashioned hotels with stunning architecture. There’s a definite increase in the number of designer shops in both towns and prices are spiralling but they have a long way to go before they catch Portofino. Also, I didn’t hear much English spoken in either town. It was all Italian. You cannot say that about Portofino.

… Rapallo and Santa Margherita each has a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus (see above). He was actually born in Genoa but it seems all the towns in this area lay claim to him

… the views open up as you approach Portofino and some of the properties en route (and their views) are to die for

Just over an hour after leaving Rapallo I entered Portofino and; my first impressions? Put simply, it is striking.

I was all set to hate the place. It is described by Lonely Planet as “perfectly coiffured” and “even the trees are handsome”. That sounds so pretentious and plastic. Before I even knew I was going to visit this place today I had formed the view that it as an expensive, artificial tourist resort, attractive only to celebrities, would be celebrities and celebrity seekers. Portofino is expensive and it is a bit of a playground for celebrities (but they have to go somewhere) and there are a ridiculous number of designer shops given the small size of the place and it’s remote location but, otherwise, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The place is gorgeous. The pretty Piazzetta on the small harbour exudes tranquility and is great place to sit and relax with glass of wine or a coffee. I sat people watching for an hour, simply revelling in the atmosphere.

… In no time I had homed in on where I wanted to be and was sitting people watching with a perfectly fine glass of wine

As you look up from the harbour you will see Castello Brown on the left and the Church of St George on the right. There is a short flight of stairs to the right of the harbour that leads up to the church of St George. Beyond that is the Castello Brown. Entrance to the church is free but there is a 5 euros entrance fee into the Castello. I think it’s worth 5 euros of anyone’s money for the views alone.

… the first photo is the Church of St George photographed from the Castello Brown and the second is the Castello photographed from the Church

… Inside it is not so much a castle as a private dwelling which, I understand is what Montague Yeats-Brown (British Consul in Genoa) intended it to be when he bought and renovated it in 1867

… the views from the windows are stunning

It was a slower walk back to Rapallo. I attribute that to the wine and the sunshine but, I arrived in time to watch the tail end of the carnival (quite what they were celebrating, I do not know) and to have a little look around the town:

… If I didn’t know better I would have sworn I saw Will and Ro in amongst the “Onesies”

… Rapallo Marina and the Castello

Cinque Terre Villages (Liguria), Italy – Feb 2018

Today is different. Today is about walking the Cinque Terre from one magical village to another and experiencing the journey, the villages and the experience as a whole. I refuse at least for today to enter any castle, any monastery, any church.

Cinque Terre translates as the Five Lands and it comprises five small fishing villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) strung along the rocky coast of Liguria between Levanto and La Spezia. Until quite recently they were linked by mule tracks and otherwise accessible only by rail or water. This is a beautiful part of Italy; so much so that the Cinque Terre is recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco and is now a National Park and Protected Marine Area. The really good news is that the mule tracks have been developed into an excellent trail and it is possible now to walk the route between all five villages and explore them all in the one day (although, if you have longer, why not take two or even three days?).

I started by taking a half hour train journey from Sestri Levante to the largest and most northerly of the five villages, Monterosso, and began my walk from there. North to South is recognised as the best approach in terms of views.

Monterosso is more of a small town than a village and it is dominated by the ruins of a castle and Churches of San Giovanni Battista and San Francesco. I promised to ignore castles and churches today and so restricted myself to a walk along the beach and a morning coffee in the sunshine. Monterosso has arguably the best beach in the area (large and sandy and, more to the point, free. So many beaches in Italy are privately owned and closed to the public – you’d never get away with that in Britain).

… the exit from Monterosso station brings you out almost directly onto the beach.

The trail to the second of the five villages, Vernazza, starts from just behind Monterosso Town Hall. There’s a charge of a few euros to use the trail (to pay for it’s upkeep) but this is waived in winter. It’s a well signposted route and, to start with, an easy walk up a stone staircase. Well it would have been easy had I not started on a second bottle of Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano last night.

… the start is easily recognised and the steps make for rapid height gain. The trail is good throughout with absolutely no exposure. If anything, there is too much fencing

The views soon begin to open up…

… that’s the first sight of Vernazza from the trail.

The small fishing village of Vernazza (population of just over 1,000) is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, although you wouldn’t think so if you came in from the back of the village as I did (see photos below).

… the trail brings you into the village at the back of the houses and even more washing is hung out at the back than the front. A lady was hanging out her washing as I took the first photo above. Look carefully or enlarge the photo and you’ll see her hanging out the window. Walk under her dripping wet washing and down an even narrower alley and you arrive at the pebbled cove that passes for a harbour and doubles as the village square…

… it’s a very small harbour and in winter or when a red flag indicates bad seas, the harbour restaurants have to remove their tables from the square so that the boats can be landed 

Vernazza is a fascinating and beautiful place with it’s pastel coloured buildings and narrow lanes. Oh, and it has a 15th Century castle (which is really just a watchtower built to provide early warning of pirates) and there is a church built on the rocks – the Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia. Enough said about those (although I really had to hold myself back from entering the church).

I stayed half an hour or so and then set off on the next stage towards Corniglia.

… that’s the view back over Vernazza and in the far distance you can see Monterosso

… an already good trail got even better over this second stage not least because it was generally wider. Don’t misunderstand me; the path was wide enough for me throughout but, in the Summer, when there will be hundreds of people walking the trail, I suspect that overtaking and/or passing people travelling in the opposite direction could be a real problem 

… and above but not that easy to see in the photo is my first sight of Corniglia. It sits on the top of that spur about 100 metres above the sea

… closer still. It took another hour to travel from Vernazza to Corniglia and again the walk was wonderful, not least because the weather was magnificent all day.

Corniglia is for my part probably the least interesting and attractive of the Cinque Terre but that could be because of the disappointment that ensued.

No mention was made of this at the outset but the trail from Corniglia to Manarola is completely closed and a small part of the trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore is blocked off because of landslides. These two stretches of the trail are the easiest, each being just 2 km long and mostly paved but I was really enjoying the walk and I wanted, especially, to see Riomaggiore. What a bummer but… all was not lost. There’s a railway station at Corniglia and I took the train to Riomaggiore.

… Simple, really. Train from Corniglia to Riomaggiore. I could have alighted at Manarola but it would have added the best part of 2 hours to my trip because of the poor connection times. Taxis are non starters around here. They simply don’t tolerate non-essential motor traffic in the villages

I would have liked to complete the walk but I don’t regret taking the train to Riomaggiore. It is the most southerly of the small fishing villages that form the Cinque Terre. Like Vernazza and Manarola, Rio consists mostly of old pastel coloured stone houses that are either cut into or cling barnacle-like to the sides of a steep rocky gorge:

I had lunch there (a bottle of the local white wine and Gnocchi with Shrimp and Spicy Sausage both at tourist prices), explored the place, walked almost all of the Riomaggiore to Manarola section from the other end of the Cinque Terre (until I reached the closed off part) and took the late afternoon train back to Sestri Levante. Except for having to pay silly money for lunch it was a great day and one I would repeat.

… there’s a fine looking church on the left (the Church of San Giovanni Battista of Riomaggiore) and; the path I stood on to take this photo leads to Via dell’Amore – see second photo – which is the paved path that forms the last section of the Cinque Terre and goes all the way to Manarola. 

Sestri Levante (Liguria), Italy – Feb 2018

I came to the small seaside town of Sestri Levante as I need to keep moving north but also because, weather permitting, it is a reasonable starting point to walk the Cinque Terre. If the forecast is correct, the weather will improve over the next day or so and I am therefore leaving the Cinque Terre until tomorrow. Today was about Sestri Levante and a short coastal walk out to the Punta Manara and then on to Riva Trigoso.

It took me less than 15 minutes to walk to the heart of Sestri Levante. The town was originally built on an island but time, soil & sand and the ocean currents created the isthmus or promontory that is modern day Sestri Levante with the Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence) to the south and Baia delle Favole (the Bay of Fables) to the north. The latter was named in honour of Hans Christian Andersen who lived here for a period in 1883.

the Baia del Silenzio and the Baia delle Favole…

Until quite recently, Sestri Levante was little more than a fishing village and it is only now that tourism is starting to take a hold but even so, this town is unlike most of the other tourist spots on the Ligurian Riviera in that food and wine remains cheaper, there’s not a designer shop anywhere within the town precincts and it is almost entirely Northern Italians who holiday here.

Via Nazionale and the wholly pedestrianised Via XXV Aprile are the main shopping streets and while there are an increasing number of bars and restaurants opening, these two streets are still packed with small shops selling local produce (bread, wine, olive oil, cheese, salami and pasta and not forgetting ice cream – I tried the local cherry flavoured ice cream today; my first ice cream since arriving in Italy). There are also a number of (non designer) clothes boutiques but I can’t say I paid these particular shops any attention at all. Some of the shops looked very interesting and you could spend many hours here just window shopping and/or browsing.

…  first photo above was taken looking south down Via XXV Aprile towards the Church of Santa Maria di Nazareth and the second at the northern end of the same street looking towards Viale Dante (which is not wholly pedestrianised)

There weren’t too many tourist type sites to see (no castle, no monasteries nor convents and relatively few churches by local standards). It is a place to chill; to eat, drink and relax although, as intimated above, it is within easy reach of many interesting hiking trails both inland and along the coast and I dare say that all sorts of water sports are available in the summer. In this latter regard, I understand they run whale watching tours from here. I was unaware the Mediterranean had any whales.

… just two interesting churches so far as I was concerned. The first was the tiny Chiesa di San Nicolo which looks to have been boarded up at least for the winter. The second was the Santa Maria di Nazareth, with its impressive neo-classical portico. Inside, this latter church was somewhat special…

… the inside of the Santa Maria di Nazareth was magnificent. 

After exploring the town, spending most of my time taking photos down at the harbour and in the Santa Maria di Nazareth, I set off on my coastal walk which comprised three stages. Stage 1 was from Sestri Levante along the cliff tops to the Punta Manara headland. Stage 2 was a walk around and down the other side of the headland into the village of Riva Trigoso (for a late lunch). Stage 3 was a walk back to the Van from Riva Trigoso, taking in the Church of St Bartholomew on the way.

Branching off the Via XXV Aprile is a small lane (the Vico del Bottone) which leads to the Punta Manara trail. This trail is a short, easy, well marked coastal walk with no real exposure until you reach Punta Manare itself, where there is short rock staircase that leads to a narrow ridge at the end of which is a fine viewpoint. It took less than an hour to reach Punta Manara, passing just two people on the route (both going the other way) and there were some great views:

… a view back to Sestri Levante and…

… the view down to Riva Trigoso from Punta Manara and…

… the view south from Punta Manara and…

… the view down from Punta Manara

I pottered around for a while on the Punta Manara but within the next hour was sitting in a Riva Trigosa restaurant with a roast chicken dinner and the local white wine (just a half litre – I still had to get back to the Van) and capped it all off with an expresso. You order coffee here and an expresso is all you will get. It’s very Italian. I think the total cost was just over 10 euros and there was so much I couldn’t finish it – the food, not the wine.

The one hour walk back was mostly uneventful but I was impressed with St Bartholomew’s:

The weather improved throughout today. Here’s hoping it remains so for tomorrow.

I’ll leave you with a couple more photo’s taken in Sestri Levante but don’t ask me to explain them because I couldn’t but, they looked interesting:

Volterra (Tuscany), Italy – Feb 2018

Yesterday was to some extent a write off. The weather was awful but that’s to be expected when you journey into the hills in winter and I’m not complaining. Today was about travelling 150 miles further north to Sestri Levante which is on the Med coast in the Italian province of Liguria but; I also wanted to visit the town of Volterra and I tailored my route accordingly. Both the journey and Volterra were enthralling.

My route was made up of two parts. The first was along a series of good country roads that wound through delightful Tuscan countryside and took me through the town of Casole d’Elsa to Volterra (and then on to Pisa). The second, from Pisa, was mostly motorway (the A12) which took me past Massa (famous for it’s Marble) and La Spezia (the port city and naval base). I will reflect only on the first part.

I didn’t intended stopping at Casole d’Elsa. From a distance it looked just like any another Tuscan hilltop walled town and I simply don’t have time to view them all. However, this place stopped me in my tracks.

… the roads were fine; the countryside beautiful (and the weather was doing it’s best to brighten up)

… Casole d’Elsa looked just like any other small hilltop town

As I drove through the town I noticed some tree sculptures by the side of the road and I stopped to look:

… hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Well, they make a change from carved squirrels and rabbits and the like (which are commonplace around Cheshire)

There were various other carvings but this place wasn’t just about wood sculptures:

… the above was entitled “Immigrants” (particularly apt given the increasing number of Syrian refugees making for Italy at the moment) but, at the risk of appearing a bit of a Philistine (sorry, I shouldn’t have said that), I think “Zombies” would have been a more appropriate title. Imagine bumping into them on a dark night on the way back from the pub?  Worse than wild boar.

… difficult to photograph but this was my favourite. I prefer the sideview. Simple but effective. This work was created by Giampiero Muzzi and there was an accompanying poem some of which I reproduce below:-

“Crystal pure spermatozoons are flying high in the sky….. A rain of miniature shining seeds will fall on Earth. From then onward the men who who will come into the world will be better than their predecessors. Better than us”

I subsequently discovered that Casole d’Elsa is home to the (world-renowned) Verrocchio Art Centre. Perhaps these pieces were produced by students of the VAC? Who knows?

Not long after leaving Casole d’Elsa I arrived at Volterra. Wow! But, I’ll let the photos do the talking:

… the gate on the left is the one I used to enter this old Etruscan city. The gate on the right, the Porta All’Alco  is one of two out of seven gates into Volterra that can be traced back to Etruscan times (400 BC). I understand the large blocks are Etruscan

… my gate took me up a few steps and past another sculpture about which there is a story but that is for another time

… I excluded people from these photos but the lanes are lived in. There was a butcher’s shop, a baker’s, a fishmonger, a flower shop and an ironmonger’s and the people I passed were … well, they were doing normal things – walking dogs and dragging disobedient children around the shops and; older people were limping home with shopping bags that were far too heavy and; it seemed everyone knew everybody else and they stopped and talked to each other and…  there wasn’t a tourist in sight (except me and; I was doing my best to look normal). It was real life.

And then I arrived at the Piazza dei Priori and found the Palazzo dei Priori (that’s it on the right):

… it seems the Palazzo was the setting for the “Twilight” books and TV series by Stephenie Meyer and where the elite vampires, the Volturi, live. Sod’s law, this place is fast becoming a mecca for teenage vampire fans. No comment

Back to reality. Volterra has a castle known as the Fortezza Medicea but, as spectacular as it looks, it is not one that I want to enter:

… the Fortezza Medicea has been converted into a maximum security state prison. The prison operates a rehabilitation restaurant and, periodically, serves gourmet meals to the public

Then there was the Amphitheatre:

… the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw this was as to whether or not the rows of seats in the theatre were originally grass as opposed to stone (methinks grass would have been more comfortable to sit on). 

I think I must have walked every lane of Volterra at least 3 times and I stopped both for brunch (a great slice of pizza just off Piazza dei Priori) and a late afternoon tea (apple pie on the Piazza XX Settembre). This latter Piazza is worth a couple of photos:

… the first photo is of a non partisan war memorial; the second is of my route back down to the Van; both taken from the Piazza XX Settembre

A thoroughly enjoyable visit. I was intending to finish with some photos of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. The outside of the cathedral does not look much but the nave and altar are very impressive. However, if you have been following this blog you will, of late, been “churched” out. So, given that we started with a little culture in Casole d’Elsa, I’ll finish with the same from Volterra:

… this is a bronze by Andrea Roggi simply termed “We Are Part Of The World – Tree of Life”. Okay, it’s a bit of a mouthful but I like the bronze

Montalcino & San Quirico d’Orcia (Tuscany), Italy – Feb 2018

Okay, the itinerary for today was a little ambitious. Four Toscano villages? Impossible if you want to do them all justice. Two was manageable and I nearly made it three, actually parking the Van up in Pienza, but I had spent longer than anticipated in both Montalcino and San Quirico and the weather turned foul so I gave up on Pienza and Montelpuciano. Two’s fine. There’s always tomorrow.

Montalcino is a small hill town in Tuscany with a population of about 5,000 and amazing views over the Asso, Ombrone and Arbia valleys. It is reputed to have the warmest and driest climate in the whole of Tuscany (although today it was neither warm nor dry) and it is home to the famous Brunello Montalcino wine. Tuscany is well known for Chianti but it’s best wines are the Brunello and the Vino Nobile from respectively Montalcino and Montelpuciano. That is why this area of Italy was always going to be of interest to me. I planned to visit an Enoteca or two to sample the local wines, especially the Brunello. Enotecas are wine tasting shops not unlike the Austrian “heurige” mentioned in one of the Austrian blogs but they stock a wider selection.

The drive to Montalcino was beautiful and I took it slow. This is a pretty part of Italy even in winter with quite decent country roads which curve around an undulating landscape that is mostly cultivated but part wild (witness last nights boar!) and the tops of many hills are crowned with spectacular stone castles, churches and monasteries.

Montalcino clings to one of the larger hills in the Val d’Orcia National Park. The town is surrounded by walls and topped by a fortress known as the Rocca. Most tourists at this time of the year are concerned only to visit Tuscany’s cities (Florence, Pisa, Siena, etc) and parking in the centre of Montalcino was easy. I left the Van in the car park alongside the Rocca and went to explore the fortress.

Above – the outer gate to the Rocca and an inner entrance that happens to be... an Enoteca – The Fortress Wineshop. Result!

I was soon deep into a wine tasting session and enjoyed sampling a variety of Brunello which are made using only the Sangiovese grape and are aged for a minimum 5 years (2 of which must be in oak barrels). The really good vintages improve with age and are left for between 10 and 20 years before drinking

My favourites were a 2011 Banfi and a 2012 Lisini (both still young but smooth) and, best of all, a 2001 Sezzana. I bought some 2012 Banfi which Wine Spectator rates as “an outstanding vintage” and “a textbook Brunello that will be at it’s best between 2020 and 2033”.  Looking forward to tasting them.

After the wine tasting it was time to explore Montalcino and get some fresh air and exercise before heading off to San Quirico d’Orcia. One point worth noting about this fortress however is that a Jazz & Wine Festival is held here every July. Now that would be great.

… the views inside and outside of the Rocca were fine (it cost 4 euros to walk the fortress) but, although the rain held off, it was very cold

The main street from the fortress into the predominantly pedestrianised town centre contained many more Enoteca but I resisted the urge.

… the main street from the fortress into Montalcino led to the Cathedral di San Salvatore. 

… the above photos show how steep some of Montalcino’s lanes are. The town quite literally clings to the side of the hill

… carrying on along the town’s principal lane, past the cathedral, is the Church of the Madonna del Soccorso. The outside was being renovated and covered in scaffolding but the inside of the church was special

It was past lunchtime as I left Montalcino. I hadn’t intended staying quite so long but I figured it wouldn’t take much more than 20 minutes to drive to San Quirico d’Orcia and that proved to be the case.

SQ’O straddles the Via Francigena (a primary route in the Middle Ages for pilgrims travelling the 1,100 miles from Canterbury to Rome) but it is not as well known nor is it as frequently visited as Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano and many other small towns in the area. It was recommended to me as a place to visit by someone from Tuscany and right he was.

The town is named after San Quirico (St Cyricus, St Cyriac or St Cyr to you and me) and the principal church is the Collegiate of the Saints Quirico and (his mother) Julitta. Most of the legends surrounding the martyrdom of the Saints Cyriac and Julitta are particularly bloodthirsty and not for repeating in this (when it suits me, family orientated) blog. However, there is one account (the English version as recorded in prints held at St Cyriac’s Church, Leacock, Wiltshire) that I don’t mind repeating because by any standards it is patently absurd. This English version claims that in 304 AD, at the height of Diocletian’s reign over the Roman Empire, St Cyriac and his mother were martyred as a result of the 3 year old St Cyriac having boxed the ears of the Roman Governor of Tarsus because he blasphemed. Only the English could conceive such a story!

… lots of lived in lanes (see the washing hanging out on the left); this one leads to the Collegiate of the Saints Quirico and Julitta

Another splendid looking church in San Quirico d’Orcia is the Chiesa di San Francesco on the main square (the Piazza della Liberta) but, my favourite is the little Church of Santa Maria Assunta:

… the gate into the Piazza della Liberta and the Chiesa di San Francesco. The wooden structure in front of the gate looks like an Onager (siege engine) but there was nothing around to explain its relevance to the town

… and the small but exquisite Church of Santa Maria Assunta

Despite being perched on a hilltop (where else?) the wholly pedestrianised town centre is mostly flat and provides for easy walking through some lovely lanes where I discovered at least two boutique hotels, some fine looking restaurants and even a Birrificio Artigianale (an artisan brewery) – the place is worth another trip to properly experience the food and drink alone. Everything about the town is so very clean and tidy (unlike so many other places in Italy which country must rank amongst the most dirty and litter infested I have seen on this tour) and the local people are so very welcoming.

… the Flying Mantuan, winner of the Mille Miglia in 1930 and 1933. The last Mille Miglia was run in in 1957 with Stirling Moss and his co-driver Denis Jenkinson winning it in 1955 

One final surprise in SQ’O, I stumbled across a bronze statue of Tazio Nuvolare, otherwise known as the Flying Mantuan and the most famous racing driver of his time, who in 1930 and 1933 won the Mille Miglia (a thousand mile motor endurance race between Brescia and Rome and back). It seems the route of the race took it through SQ’O:

Seems a good note to end this blog on. From San Quirico d’Orcia I raced eastwards towards Pienze, arriving just in time to experience the heaviest rain since I crossed the Albanian border into Greece. I hung about for an hour or so to see if the rain would stop and then called it a day and returned to Casciano di Murlo.

Casciano di Murlo (Tuscany), Italy – Feb 2018

My original plan, after leaving Rome, was to head for Grosseto (117 miles to the north) and then Siena (a further 48 miles, north north east) and to stay over in both places. I no longer have the time for that (I have to get back to the UK within the next 2 weeks) and since I couldn’t choose between the two towns, I elected to stop somewhere between them and explore a few of the local villages instead. This would mean one stop instead of two and it would be in keeping with my expressed wish to go somewhere quieter after Rome.

So, I drove about 130 miles north to the quiet and fairly remote village of Casciano di Murlo in Tuscany. Nestled amongst densely wooded and hilly terrain it is very quiet but also very well placed for me to visit a couple of interesting Tuscan villages tomorrow – Montalcino and Montepulciano (more about them in the morning). To give you an idea as to how quiet and remote this place is:-

I set off from Rome late in the day and didn’t arrive in Casciano di Murlo until well after dark. I parked up just outside the village and walked a kilometre or so back to a local store to buy bread and milk. I stopped also to check out the local tavern but, just one glass of the local red wine and a slice of pizza (such that I didn’t have to cook). Returning to the Van with a small torch in hand I received the shock of my life. A “sounder” of wild boar (I had to look “sounder” up on the internet – it is the collective noun for a dozen or more boar) charged out of the woods and across the road directly in front of me. I really thought they were heading for me and to say they made me jump is an understatement. They frightened the bloody life out of me!

(Both photos taken the following day)

It didn’t altogether end there. I awoke the next morning to noise outside the Van. I thought it might be the boar again but no, this time it was a small herd of deer. They disappeared as I exited the Van.

The weather was cold but dry (4 degrees and windchill compared to the 22 degrees and sun I enjoyed down at Gallipoli) and the weather forecast was for rain later in the day but there was time enough to take a quick walk around Casciano before setting off for Montalcino and Montepulciano:-

A very quiet village. Time enough to plot the day’s itinerary. I think 4 more villages in total unless the rain proves too heavy – Montalcino, San Quirico d’Orcia, Pienza and Montepulciano

Rome (Lazio), Italy – Feb 2018

By early afternoon I had left Pompeii and was en route to the Hotel Bell’ambriana in Rome, arriving just at the end of a thunder storm. I met Steve there and we stayed three days, with the Van parked up in the hotel car park. Oh, and the weather wasn’t at all bad except for that moment when I arrived.

This was my fourth or fifth time in the Eternal City but it didn’t stop us doing the usual sites that one associates with a rugby or football weekend in Rome – the Fiddler’s Elbow, Finnegans’s Bar, the Druid’s Den (except the Den has closed down) and a couple of Italian bars too – Sorry, I should have said – the Colloseum, St Peter’s Square, the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, etc:-

The usual tourist photos; all so well known, I suspect, as not to require any introduction or description:-

… and then, best of all (given the 46 – 15 scoreline and the way Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds sparkled against Italy), the Olympic Stadium…

Of course, the majority of the long weekend was given over to eating and drinking and, without any doubt, it was a fruity full bodied red Solento Negroamaro which proved a clear winner so far as the wine was concerned (which goes to show I made excellent use of my time in Puglia). The food? Rome has the best pizzas in the world but my favourite meal was a simple Lasagne which I ate, sitting in the sunshine outside on the day of the match in a restaurant I cannot even remember the name of, let alone where it is.

… I don’t remember the name of the restaurant or even the square it was located in but I do recall the wine we drank was a Puglian Primitivo

Thanks again, Rome. Thanks again England Rugby. Somewhere quieter next, I think.

Pompeii (Campania), Italy – Feb 2018

Personal issues require that I return to the UK and yesterday morning I decided that the planned tour of Calabria and Sicily must wait for another day (the summer?). I turned the Van northwards and made for Pompeii. Then it is to Rome for the Italy v England 6 Nations Rugby match on 4 February and thereafter I will plan my route / itinerary back to the UK. Having said that there’s a few more blogs to be posted before this particular tour is concluded.

The 400 km drive to Pompeii was easy, mostly motorway, and my only grumble was with the weather. I was leaving 25 degrees of warm sunny weather and heading towards the currently cold and wet west coast. Here’s hoping that it improves, especially for the rugby match.

… nice hills on the way over to the Campania Region. They too will warrant a return visit

Upon arrival in Pompeii, I parked up in the Fortune Village Campsite directly opposite one of the main entrances to the archaeological site. I had the Fortune Village to myself but the archaeological site, large as it is (170 acres have been unearthed to date), was packed with tourists and I elected to leave my visit until early the following morning before the hordes arrive.

To set the scene, ancient Pompeii was a Roman port with more than 10,000 residents when, following the sudden and violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August in 79 AD, it was buried under 7 metres of pumice and ash. The only good news from a historical perspective was that the city’s sudden burial served to protect it for more than 17 centuries from vandalism, looting and the destructive effects of climate and weather. Unfortunately, some of those who began the archaeological “dig” after Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748 were not sufficiently skilled in excavation techniques and caused not inconsiderable damage to what was left of the city (and there was a great deal of looting too) and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, during the summer of 1943 the US Twelfth Air Force Bomber Command accidently dropped no fewer than 150 bombs on the place.

The next morning, I was amongst the first to visit the site and I made straight for the Forum (which is fairly central and where most of the city’s focus would have been) with a view to exploring the site from the inside out. I gave myself 3 hours but, to do the place justice, should have allowed 5. It is a fascinating place notwithstanding that most of it’s treasures and frescoes have been removed to various museums, particularly the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

… in the south west corner of the Forum is the Basilica of Pompeii where business and legal matters were debated and where lawyers without clients, teachers without pupils and artists without commissions, etc would tout for business. This particular example was built between 130 and 120 BC

… the northern end of the forum contains what remains of the Temple of Jupiter and 3 of 4 honorific arches. Initially, the buildings were constructed of dark volcanic stone but in the 1st Century AD white limestone was introduced (see columns on extreme right) 

… Statue of a Centaur on the south side of the Forum. More limestone columns to the right of this photo.

… Pompeii streets. Not a tourist in sight. I timed it perfectly!!

It was not so much the civic buildings, but the private residences, bars, shops and bath houses which I found most interesting. Walking around Pompeii is so much more than a history lesson. This was a real tragedy with an estimated 2,000 people losing their lives as a result of the eruption and seeing the homes, pubs, shops  and personal effects of those that lived in Pompeii and died such a violent death there makes the visit so very more poignant. And if that is not enough seeing the plaster casts (in places like the Granary, Stabian Baths and Garden of the Fugitives) of victims caught at the precise moment of their death makes the whole Pompeii experience so more “proximate”.

… some details from Casa del Fauno. The House of the Faun (named after the bronze faun statue standing in the impluvium which was designed to catch rain water) is one of the largest and more impressive private dwellings and it is thought to have been owned by a Cassius Satria. The mosaic inside the House depicts Alexander the Great’s victory over Darius III of Persia at Issuss in 333 BC

… part of the garden of the house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, said to be a cultured man with a great political career. This is one of the most richly appointed properties to have been unearthed with, tragically, the crushed skeletons of a group of 5 adults and 3 children inside. It is believed the roof collapsed during the initial eruption.

… Casa di Fontana Piccola – the House of the Little Fountain (House Number 18 on the Via di Mercurio). No one knows who lived in this property. 

… mural (from the House of the Vetti?)- 2 brothers, Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus, believed to be wine merchants lived in the house of Vetti

… the granary with innumerable amphorae (storage jars). The second photo includes a cast of a dog frozen at the moment of it’s death

… the oven from one of 34 bakeries unearthed in Pompeii

… the Sun and the Fortunata Public Houses. I am told there were many more taverns than bakeries in Pompeii. Some things never change.

… the Stabian baths and the cast of yet another casualty found in the grounds of the baths.

I wasn’t too sure about going to Pompeii but it proved an unusual and moving day and I would certainly revisit the place (allowing 5 hours next time). Moreover, I’d combine the trip with a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Highly recommended (if you can beat the crowds).