Gordes (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

L’Isle Sur la Sorgue was always going to be a hard act to follow and I must, therefore, keep an open mind as I describe Gordes. I agree Gordes is one of Provence’s prettiest hillside villages and it is certainly a worthy member of France’s ‘plus beaux villages’ but, for it to be portrayed as “the prettiest village in France” and “the Parthenon of the Luberon” (as it is in some travel blogs) is rather stretching matters.

I think the place is overrated. It benefits from being on an established tourist trail that includes the Abbey of Senanque (which features in countless photos of the Provence lavender fields and is less than 5 kilometres away) and the Village des Bories (France’s answer to the Puglian Trulli and only 2 kilometres away). Add to this that Peter Mayle’s best selling book “A Year In Provence” mentions Gordes and that several hotels were built in the village around the time his book was published (1989) and it strikes me that over the last 30 years Gordes has received a hugely disproportionate degree of promotion and praise from local property developers and travel agents as thousands of tourists were channeled through the area from nearby Avignon, Aix en Provence and even Marseilles. It’s pretty but it’s not that pretty and it gets far too many coach tours to rank amongst the best villages in Provence, let alone France.

Having said all that, on a sunny day it’s white and ochre coloured buildings and terracotta roof tiles are stunning whether viewed from afar or up close and the views across the Cavalon Valley towards the Luberon Massif are tremendous.

A medieval castle, the Chateau de Gordes, towers over the village. It’s an austere and forbidding fortress and, despite being modified in the 16th century (an attempt to turn it into a residence), not one of it’s owners has chosen to make it their home. Instead, it has served as a barracks for passing friendly forces, a prison and, believe it or not, a boy’s school. As I write this I am reminded of the boarding school I attended for a while in the mid sixties. Sorry, I digress, the castle also housed the town hall, the village post office and a pharmacy for a while after being acquired by the local council authority. Nowadays it doubles as a home to the village tourist office and as an art gallery & museum. I understand there’s a second quite unusual museum in Gordes in the shape of the St Firmin Palace Caves and I was tempted to visit but, we had the dogs with us and dogs and museums simply don’t mix.

The most impressive aspects of Gordes, and the most photogenic, are the church (L’Eglise Saint Firmin) and, most especially, the steep, narrow alleys known locally as ‘calades’. Many of these calades, particularly those in the steeper parts of the village where all the houses sit at different levels, have small steps running down their centre to help people move more easily up and down the tight little spaces. My favourite part of the village is down near the foot of the village in an area known as the Fontaine Basse, where there are old wash houses, a mill and what appear to be a couple of small chapels (and, dare I add, very few tourists).

We didn’t stay in Gordes for very long. It’s a small village with very little to offer in terms of local attractions and it can be explored in just a few hours. We might have stayed longer had we visited on a Tuesday when the weekly farmer’s market takes place but, having said that, I shudder at the thought of how busy the place would be on market day.

Anyway, we had decided that for old times sake we would revisit one of our favourite small towns in France, Saint Remy de Provence. No amount of tourists will deter me from going there…

L’Isle Sur La Sorgue (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

We were settled in the Hotel Le Blason de Provence in Monteux for the next two nights. It was time to explore the surrounding area and we decided to start with L’Isle Sur La Sorgue which is listed among ‘Les plus beau villages de France’ and only a 20 minute drive south.

Vanya was suffering with her hip and so, having parked the Van at the edge of L’Isle Sur La Sorgue on the Route de Cavaillon, I left her to rest for a while and set off alone to explore the town. Within 10 minutes I had reached the River Sorgue which marks the southern edge of the old town. I need only have crossed the bridge in front of me and followed the Rue Carnot to reach the town centre but I fancied following the river around the town first.

The River Sorgue is for the most part a shallow meandering river which completely encircles the old town and it is this surrounding ring of water, together with it’s canals and tributaries, that have caused L’Isle sur la Sorgue to be called the Venice of Provence. I think that excessive but the many waterways and numerous footbridges do lend the place a priceless charm. The river water is crystal clear and there are a couple of wonderful looking bathing areas towards the edge of the town although you’ll not catch me using them. The water is a constant 55 degrees, being the temperature at which it surges from it’s spring in nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse. That’s a little cold for me!

Passing one of the town’s 60+ waterwheels on the way, I followed the river as it ran parallel with the Avenue de la Liberation towards the Monument Alphonse Benoit. Benoit was a local businessman and philanthropist who lived in the town during the period 1809 – 1872. Cross the river from the Avenue de la Liberation and you’re on the Quai Rouget de L’Isle and this too leads to the Monument Alphonse Benoit.

At the Monument turn left and you’re on the Quai Jean Jaures. This is arguably the prettiest and most photographed part of the town although the far end of this quai (where it meets the Quai Frederic Mistral) runs it a close second. There’s no denying L’Isle Sur La Sorgue attracts a high number of tourists and the Quai Jean Jaures is a tourist hotspot but it is a gem of a place and well worth visiting.

Both the Quai Rouget de l’Isle and Quai Jean Jaures are lined with waterside cafes and restaurants and an array of interesting and unusual shops, many of them antique shops. Indeed, the town is brimming with hundreds of antique shops and/or dealers in second hand goods and, if that isn’t enough, the town holds an ‘International Antiques Fair’ twice a year (Easter and the end of August) which attract more than 500 stalls. It is said that, after Paris, L’Isle de la Sorgue is the largest antique centre in France and I wouldn’t argue that point.

Talking of markets, L’Isle Sur La Sorgue is almost as famous for it’s farmers market as it’s antiques. They’re held every Thursday and Sunday morning and the latter market is enhanced by a brocante (flea market). Once or twice a year, in the summer, a floating market is also held on barges (known as nego-chins) on the River Sorgue but I’d need to check with the local tourist office for the precise dates. There were no markets on as I strolled the town.

Follow the Quai Rouget de L’Isle, the Quai Jean Jaures and the Quai Frederic Mistral and you will have walked the most interesting three sides of the four that surround the old town. Turn left into Rue du Docteur Tallet upon reaching the medieval washhouses on the Quai Frederic Mistral and you’ll soon reach the centre of the old town, Le Place de l’Eglise. Me, I retraced my steps to the Van to collect Vanya and the dogs. Vanya just had to see this place.

In no time I was back in the old town with Vanya and our dogs. The relatively silent narrow winding streets and lanes of the old town, together with their empty cobbled passages and courtyards, proved irresistible after the bustling, congested quays that line the Sorgue. They were shaded and cool and, at least until we reached the town centre and the town’s principal church (the Collegiale Notre Dame Des Anges), we somehow escaped the tourists.

Waterwheels of many different sizes and designs, most dating back to the 18th century, are to be found throughout the town. The majority served to generate power for the spinning and weaving of wool and silk or the production of paper while others were used to crush olives or mill flower; all industries long since replaced by tourism in L’Isle de La Sorgue. A few are still in working order and I could happily stand and watch those wheels turning for ages but, even those that are now still and covered in moss are bewitchingly attractive.

On the central square at the heart of the old town stands the Collegiale Church of Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of Angels). The church was first built in 1212 in a Romanesque style although there is little if anything that remains of the Romanesque style now. It was almost totally rebuilt at the end of the 14th century and has since become a blend of Gothic and Baroque styles but, the inside is truly… spectacular? It is filled with grand vaulted ceilings, gilded statues, colourful paintings; it’s a mass of blue and gold. In truth, I was overwhelmed by it and there’s a part of me thinks it is over the top and perhaps a little gaudy but; it has to be seen.

Just outside, on the same square, is another quite famous institution… the Cafe de France. If ever there was an Art Nouveau Coffee Shop, this is it. It is the oldest coffee shop in the town and the perfect place to enjoy a croque monsieur and people watch while planning your next move. Oh, and the town’s tourist office is also to be found on this square in the event you need help with the planning.

We left the square by the Rue Carnot and before too long were back at our starting point although we would have been a great deal quicker had Vanya not constantly paused to take photos of Beanie for her facebook posts…

L’Isle Sur La Sorgue. Wherever we go next, this place will be a hard act to follow.

Monteux (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

Vanya had booked us into the Hotel Le Blason de Provence for a couple of nights. How she found this place, I do not know but; it is a delightful boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras and it proved the perfect place to chill out after a little over 3 weeks on the road.

I’ll write about Monteux later. Let me start by introducing you to the Hotel Le Blason de Provence. In their website the owners describe the hotel as “a typical Provencal building from the 1930’s”. That may be true from an architectural perspective but otherwise, no; there’s nothing typical about this hotel. Vanya and I are agreed; they have transformed the hotel into something wholly charming inside and out.

It’s a member of the Logis Hotels Group(e). From what I can tell, the Logis Group is a ‘confederation’ (my word, not theirs) of independent hotel and restaurant owners across Europe who are concerned to offer “a warm and personalised welcome, quality accommodation and home-made meals based on local and seasonal produce”. The hotels are generally small (20 bedrooms on average) and, more often than not, are to be found in the countryside.

Le Blason de Provence conforms in all respects with the above. The reception we received upon our arrival and throughout our stay from the two proprietors and their staff was warm, friendly and attentive.

The hotel itself has a tiny reception area and just 18 bedrooms but, so far as we could tell, each room is well furnished, tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean. The dining area really impressed me. It is not particularly large but it’s tables are comfortably spaced and the room has a real chic feel about it (embellished as it is by some unusual artefacts collected by the owners during their travels – I’m thinking in particular of their nod to Japan). However, the part of the hotel we most enjoyed during our stay (and I include our dogs in this) was the shaded terrace area by the front entrance. This pretty garden and patio area with it’s striking mural – more about murals later – proved to be the perfect place to take coffees in the morning; cold beers during the afternoon (the hotel swimming pool borders the patio); glasses of chilled Pouilly Fume in the early evening and; a warming whisky last thing at night. I always keep a bottle of malt whisky in the Van.

We were looking for a charming place to relax and we found it – quiet and comfortable and with the most attentive service.

Surprise, surprise. Within minutes of checking in, we were on the terrace outside the front of the hotel enjoying a very nice bottle of Pouilly Fume

And the food? The continental breakfast was as comprehensive and as fresh as you would expect from a good hotel in France. I need say no more about breakfast.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant? Well, the restaurant is recognised in Gault & Millau’s Guide Jaune (Yellow Guide) as one of the best in this part of France. I was expecting something special and I wasn’t disappointed. There were 7 or 8 main courses on the menu. Vanya went for the ‘Veritable Salade Cesar’ which surprised me by having all the proportions of a main course. I decided in favour of the ‘Poisson du Moment’ which that day was Ling.

The chef, Thomas Longuesserre, is something of a celebrity having featured on national tv. Quite where he ranks as a chef I cannot say but the fish he prepared for me was outstanding. Ling is a deepwater fish that I would normally avoid, because it is often trawled and I’m not sure I approve of deepwater trawling but, I was assured the fish being offered was caught by long line. I think Ling is a member of the cod family (although it looks more like a cod-conger eel cross and can grow up to 7 feet long) but it tastes a little stronger and goes exceptionally well with Pouilly Fume. We enjoyed another two bottles and once again were ‘last men standing’.

There’s not a great deal to the town of Monteux but we were there to relax and, anyway, if we wanted more there was always nearby Carpentras; and of course Avignon is only 20 kilometres away.

Monteux is a long established market town, dating back to Roman times. It reached it’s zenith early in the 14th century, at the time of the ‘Avignon Papacy’, when Pope Clement V chose nearby Avignon instead of Rome for his Papal Palace and took up residency in Monteux’s 11th century castle and for a while nearby Carpentras. It was Pope John XXII who settled definitively in Avignon.

The castle in which Clement V lived was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1415 and the town’s two main gates (the Avignon and Neuve Gates) and the castle dungeon, known as the Clementine Tower, are all that remain of the castle and it’s walls.

A road system circles the old town where it’s castle walls once stood and I entered through what was the Avignon Gate. It is nowhere near as pretty but the town reminds me of Dozza, near Bologna in Italy, in that many of the walls are covered with some quite fascinating murals. The murals here tend to identify the original purpose of the buildings (e.g. basketmaker, cooper, tailor, etc). One of the artists who painted the walls in the old town also painted the mural at the Hotel Blason.

I particularly like those murals that have been built around existing features; such as the fountain below.

I’ve already mentioned the castle and the Clementine Tower. The only two other buildings of significance in the old town are the Church of Our Lady of Nazareth and the Hotel de Ville. Unfortunately I cannot relate much about either building. I couldn’t access the church and all I know about the Hotel de Ville is that it was originally a hospital (the Saint Pierre Hospital which opened in 1713) and it became the Town Hall in 1958.

You don’t need more than a few hours to see Monteux and so we spent subsequent days in the area visiting a couple of the local villages – L’Isle sur La Sorgue and Gordes. They are the subject of separate entries in this blog.

I’ll round off this particular entry by addressing other eating options in Monteux. It won’t take long because except for the Hotel Le Blason Restaurant, we were disappointed with the alternatives in and around the town. In hindsight we should have asked the staff at our hotel for their recommendations because having walked through and around the old town the only places that we saw open were fast food outlets. Credit where it is due, one of them serving Vietnamese and Japanese food (Le Palais d’Asie), did have a handful of tables and we enjoyed some of their Vietnamese dishes with a couple of beers. I was actually drinking bottles of Singha (Thai) in preference to bottles of Asahi (Japanese) or cans of Saigon 333 (Vietnam). Then it was back to the hotel for a final bottle of Pouilly Fume.

Pietra Ligure (Liguria), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

Leaving Lago Le Tamerici we drove north; making for Camping dei Fiori, a campsite in Pietra Ligure which I think is part of the Pian dei Boschi hotel complex. We would stay in Pietra Ligure for just one night as we were due in the small French town of Monteux the following day. Vanya had booked us into Monteux’s Hotel Le Blason De Provence, a highly recommended boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras. We were going to spoil ourselves for two or three days but more about that later. First, let me write a little about Pietra Ligure. I really liked the place and will most certainly return.

Pietra Ligure is a popular seaside town, half way between Genoa and San Remo, on the Riviera Ponente (part of the Italian Riviera) and it is named after it’s castle perched up on an imposing limestone cliff known as La Pietra (which translates as the stone or the rock in English). There has been a castle on this rock since the time of the Roman Empire but the current structure dates from the 16th century.

It took just 10 minutes to walk from Camping dei Fiori to the beach and another 5 minutes to reach Pietra Ligure’s historic old town (the largely medieval Borgo Vecchio)… and what a little gem it is!

Hemmed in between the sandy beach and a series of low hills which form a backdrop along much of this coast, the old town is built mostly of a pastel coloured stone and comprises numerous narrow shaded alleys (known as ‘caruggi’ in this part of the world), many of which are topped with arches and lead through or to small squares or courtyards. Interspersed with shops and cafe-bars and almost entirely pedestrianised, the caruggi are brimming with character and lend the town a very local flavour and feeling. I love them.

At the centre of the Borgo Vecchio, on the town’s main square (the Piazza San Nicolo di Bari) is an elegant, cream coloured, Romanesque style church – the Basilica of San Nicolo di Bari. Inside its beautifully carved doors this church is sumptuously decorated with sculptures and stunning artwork. The inside of some churches that I have seen during these tours have been overelaborate, almost gaudy, but this is a jewel of a church and no photos I took can do it justice.

Pietra Ligure is not a large town (just 8,000 residents outside of summer) and it didn’t take long to explore the Borgo Vecchio. I knew too that I would be returning later in the day with Vanya and so, after tearing myself away from the Basilica, I made my way on the beach and then on to the Borgo Nuovo (the new town).

I was most impressed with the beach area. There’s a long sandy blue flag beach, a sizeable pier from which numerous anglers seemed to be enjoying themselves and a wide seafront promenade lined with palm trees. Most important, given Italy’s proclivity towards private beaches (regular readers of this blog will know that I abhor private beaches), Pietra Ligure has determined that a large central part of the beach should be open to the public. Moreover, the town has at least one and possibly two dog friendly beaches complete with dog showers. Respect!

The next day, we were moving on into France. Sadly, we didn’t have time before leaving to return just a few kilometres back down the coast to visit two of Italy’s most beautiful villages – the Borghi piu Belli d’Italia of Borgio Verezzi (with it’s Valdemino Caves) and Finalborgo (with it’s annual medieval festival) but, we’ll be back.

On to Monteux…

Lago Le Tamerici (Tuscany), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

It was time to head north. We were always going to be on a tight schedule this tour and, anyway, towards the end of September the majority of campsites in the south of Italy tend to close for winter. France beckoned. Vanya picked out a small campsite (44 campervan pitches) back in Tuscany halfway between Pisa and Livorno and so it was that we set off for Camping Lago Le Tamerici.

Camping Lake Temerici is an outstanding little camp site on the side of a small lake in the Coltano Nature Reserve – large grassy pitches, decent facilities and a warm welcome from the proprietors. There’s also a very good restaurant on site which for the most part relies on their own locally produced meat and vegetables (just as well because there is very little else in the immediate area).

We were fortunate to arrive on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon. The place was packed with day trippers but we were assured the great majority would leave before sunset and we need only reserve a place in the restaurant if we wanted a table on the porch overlooking the lake. I did just that and, after updating my Face Book account over a large glass of the local artisan beer, went off for a short stroll around the lake.

It turned out to be a beautiful evening with a great sunset but, the food and wine (a Tuscan Vermentino) were such that I couldn’t be bothered to move from the restaurant to take any photos.

Campeggio Lago le Tamerici proved a great find and we would certainly return. Nearby Pisa does little for me but Livorno I do want to see more of and this campsite works for me.

Anzio (Lazio), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

We drove to Anzio by way of Orvieto in Umbria.

Anzio is a fascinating medium sized town of some 50,000 inhabitants on the Tyrrhenian Sea, about 30 miles south of Rome. In the Summer, it is very popular with Roman holidaymakers (some 40% of houses in Anzio are second homes to people from Rome) but, outside of those months it is usually quiet. The town, with it’s sandy beaches and a pretty little harbour (a departure point for a ferry and hydroplane service to the nearby Pontine Islands, although Formia is the primary port in this regard) was very quiet as we arrived.

We had the dogs with us and were therefore unable to make the trip to the Pontine Islands but that is an archipelago we will most certainly visit in the future. Only 2 of the 6 islands are occupied all year round (the islands of Ponza and Ventotene) but Palmarola and Zannone are inhabited during the summer months and all six islands have stories to tell; even the deserted Santo Stefano (a penal colony until 1965) and Gavi (now a wildlife refuge).

Anzio is steeped in ancient and modern history (with a fair bit in between although the place fell into decline during the Middle Ages). At the time of the Roman Empire, the combined towns of Anzio and Nettuno were known as Antium and was the birthplace of two Julio-Claudian Emperors (Caligula who reigned 37-41 AD and Nero who reigned 54-68 AD). During his reign, Nero developed an enormous, magnificently decorated palace in Antium (the Villa Imperiale di Nerone or Nero’s Villa). Covered in a precious white marble it stretched 800 metres along the beach and 300 metres inland. No doubt with the palace in mind, a subsequent emperor, Hadrian, described Antium as one of the prettiest places in the Empire. There’s not a great deal remaining of the villa but it’s footprint is largely intact.

Anzio’s beaches once again became a centre of attention in January 1944 when during WW2, “Operation Shingle” saw troops from the USA, Great Britain and Canada invade them with a view to compromising the German 10th Army and liberating Rome. After a promising start (i.e. a 7 mile beachhead established and an open road to Rome for the loss of just 13 Allied dead) the invasion stalled and developed into one of the more savage battles of the war (more than 43,000 Allied casualties) with Lieutenant General Mark W Clark and his subordinate Major General John P Lucas combining to totally screw the operation up. Lucas (described by Winston Churchill as a ‘Stranded Whale’) was relieved of his command and sent back to the USA after sitting on the beach for 8 days and doing nothing while the Germans rushed their 14th Army south to support their 10th Army. Clark too should have been returned to the USA for tolerating Lucas’ inertia and then deliberately ignoring the orders of his own Commanding Officer (General Sir Harold Alexander) as he sought to retrieve the situation. Lucas’ replacement, Major General Lucian Truscott of the US 3rd Division wrote that “had Clark held loyally to General Alexander’s insructions… and not changed the direction of my attack… the strategic objectives of Anzio would have been accomplished in full”. The US military historian Carlo D’Este was more critical saying that Clark’s actions in disregarding Alexander was “as militarily stupid as it was insubordinate”. Clark kept his post. No surprises there since he was a close personal friend of Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces.

Except for a few words about the war cemeteries I perhaps need to draw a line under the Battle of Anzio. It will suffice to say there is a great deal in the town and it’s immediate surroundings to remind any visitor of Imperial Rome and the Anzio landings of 1944.

There are three war cemeteries in the area immediately surrounding Anzio; two British & Commonwealth cemeteries (‘Anzio War Cemetery’ and ‘Beach Head War Cemetery’) and the USA cemetery at Nettuno (now known as ‘The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery’ after US cemeteries in Salerno and Sicily were closed).

I took the time to visit the well maintained Anzio War Cemetery and during my walk back to a beach car park where I’d left Vanya with Nala and Beanie, I passed the charming 17th century Villa Adele, a significant part of which is now a museum, the Museo dello Sbarco di Anzio. Initially,the museum’s focus was directed towards the area’s archaeological finds but, perhaps unsurprisingly, four rooms have since been dedicated to the Battle for Anzio; a room each for the USA, Britain & the Commonwealth, Germany and of course Italy. A small part of the museum is centred around a Lieutenant Eric Fletcher Waters, a British officer who landed at Anzio and lost his life in the ensuing battle. His son, Roger Waters, grew up to be a co-founder, bass player and principal lyricist of Pink Floyd and; one of Pink Floyd’s singles, “When the Tigers Broke Free” (originally entitled “Anzio, 1944”) tells the story of his fathers death at Anzio.

Close to Anzio War Cemetery is the Basilica di Santa Teresa. That’s Saint Teresa de Lisieux (the Saint I wrote about in my blog on Alencon earlier this year – Tour 7) and not to be confused with Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint Teresa of Calcutta or any one of the other Saint Teresas’s). The Basilica, which was built between 1926 and 1939, is very imposing from the outside (especially having regard to it’s huge belltower) and it is supposedly very impressive on the inside too but a wedding ceremony was underway as I arrived and I wasn’t inclined to hang around.

One church I was able to access is the Chiesa dei Santi Pio e Antonio on Anzio’s main square, the Piazza Pia. Having been consecrated in 1885, this neo classical style church is a little older than the Basilica di Santi Teresa and, if not so imposing, is far prettier.

Back at the Van, Vanya and I planned our next move and we determined to drive north along the coast and seek out a good seafood restaurant. This whole area is justifiably famous for it’s fresh fish. We found the perfect place some 16 miles away on a wide sandy beach in Torvaianica. The food, the setting and the mood were truly great. From Vanya’s perspective however that all seemed to fade into nothing against the new drink she discovered at the restaurant – a Prosecco & Lemon Sorbet. Honestly, she was in seventh heaven. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of that drink…

Bolsena (Lazio), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

Wow! Bolsena really impressed me, notwithstanding the overcast weather. It is probably crowded with tourists during the summer but during mid September the place was quite empty (and yet all facilities were still open). We timed our visit well.

Bolsena is a small town of less than 5,000 people located on the northeast shore of Lake Bolsena which, with a depth of 500 feet and a diameter of 7.5 miles, is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. The crystal clear waters of the lake teem with fish but is so clean it is safe to drink. There are a couple of small islands towards the centre of the lake, L’Isola Bisentina and L’Isola Martana, but the inclement weather precluded any boat trip on our part. They are privately owned islands but boat trips are still possible at least during the summer months.

Many of the villages around Lake Bolsena, particularly Marta on the south side of the lake, are fishing villages where pike, perch, eel, various species of bass and catfish are caught. Bolsena also supports a number of fishing boats but in summer the town’s main source of income is from tourism and that is reflected by the number of boats in the harbour offering lake tours.

Bolsena is very much a town of two halves. Down by the waterside is the more stylish, modern half of the town with it’s many hotels, restaurants, holiday homes and lakeside leisure activities while behind that area, clinging to the surrounding hillside, is the attractive old medieval town.

These old town streets, filled with dark stone houses reminiscent of a medieval fishing village, are as interesting and full of character as any in Italy and walking them it is easy to believe you have slipped back in time.

At the very top of the town is the 13th century Castle Rocca Balsena. By the 15th century this imposing castle (it towers over Bolsena) was in an advanced state of decay but the Monaldeschi family committed to it’s restoration and as a consequence the finished product was renamed the Castello Rocca Monaldeschi. The castle currently houses the Territorial Museum of Lake Bolsena and while I wasn’t too impressed with the museum contents (there doesn’t seem to be any real focus to the contents – they are as diverse as Etruscan pottery, medieval paintings and fish from the lake), it is well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee for the views from the battlements alone.

Having explored the castle and checked out the museum I was keen to visit the local church, the Basilica of Santa Cristina but it was closed. It is said that the church was the scene of a miracle in 1263 when a Bohemian priest, in doubt about the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. the conversion of the eucharistic bread and wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ) was convinced of it’s truth by the miraculous appearance of drops of blood on the Host he was consecrating at a mass in the crypt of the church. The marvel is commemorated in the Vatican by Raphael’s fresco “The Miracle at Bolsena’ and the Pope, Urban IV, subsequently built Orvieto Cathedral where a blood stained altar cloth from the Basilica of Santa Cristina is stored.

While exploring the old town I found a small restaurant-bar where we would take dinner later that evening and I spent what was left of the afternoon in that bar sampling the local white wine (a Lazio ‘Vermentino’) until it was time to collect Vanya.

Despite not being able to walk at all well (her hip was playing up) Vanya was as entranced with Bolsena as I was and the meal was great. Oh, and Vanya loved the Vermentino although, upon the recommendation of the waiter, we switched from the Lazio Vermentino to one from Tuscany. It proved to be better.

A little bit more about the Vermentino because I don’t doubt that we’ll be taking a fair few bottles back to the UK. It’s a hardy yet thin skinned white wine grape which thrives in warmer climates because of it’s tendency to ripen quite late in the growing season. It is believed the grape originated in Piedmont but, because it is easy to grow and resistant to drought and disease, it is now found all around the world (particularly Provence in France where it is known as Rolle) and across a broad swathe of Italy (Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio and Sardinia). We’ve since tried quite a few and so far I favour those from Bolgheri in Tuscany with some from Sardinia coming a close second.

And then it was back to the Van, passing all kinds of critters on the way, one of which (down by the lake) frightened the life out of Vanya. She didn’t half scream. Lol.

We’d have stayed longer in Bolsena except the facilities at the campsite we were using (Camping Internazionale Il Lago) are so badly in need of modernising. We love the location (in terms of it’s proximity to the lake and the town centre) but we wanted a decent shower block.

Anzio next…

Santa Lucia (Tuscany), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

This will probably be my shortest post ever.

We were heading south to Pitigliano. Not sure how but I got it all wrong and we ended up missing Pitigliano and stopping at Santa Lucia where there really is nothing except a Campsite -cum-Lorry Stop. Having said that, the campsite owners were very welcoming and operated a decent bar-restaurant which made the overnight stay fine but the next morning we retraced our steps looking for Pitigliano and I again got it wrong. Disaster.

I have enjoyed and been impressed by a fair few hilltop towns and villages in Tuscany (Montalcino, Montepulciano, San Quirico d’Orca and Volterra, to name but a few) and, from what I have heard, Pitigliano may well prove to be among the best of them but, it will have to wait. We gave up on the place and headed for Bolsena in Lazio Region.

We paused at the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet near Berberino di Mugello and drove through part of Orvieto in Umbria Region but at best this was a travel day…

… and then we arrived at Bolsena in Lazio and everything changed for the better…

Asolo (Veneto), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

Arrived in Italy and made our way to Bolso del Grappa through Vidor and Valdobbiadene. We were booked into Camping Santa Felicita together with friends Craig and Julie who were visiting Italy in their own van. We fancied a return to the Prosecco Hills and, in particular, the pretty little town of Asolo which is a relaxing little place in the foothills of the Dolomites and fully deserving of it’s “I Borghi più belli d’Italia” status. We used the Santa Felicia campsite as a base when last in the area and there’s nothing wrong with the place.

It was pleasant meeting up with Craig and Julie and for the most part we really enjoyed that first evening at the campsite notwithstanding the incredible storm which struck as we were eating in the restaurant adjacent to the camp site. It wasn’t so much the thunder and lightning which made the storm so memorable but the torrential rain. It was deluge which for a short while at least matched any of the monsoons I have witnessed in Africa and the Far East.

It was later, after the storm had subsided and we returned to the Vans, that we learned the full cost of that evening. The awning on Craig’s vehicle had been half torn from the side of his van. It was totally ruined. If that wasn’t bad enough, the next day both Julie and I, despite eating different dishes at the nearby restaurant, were both very sick. I’ll not say any more about that but I very much doubt we’ll be eating in that restaurant again.

Next morning we all made our way in the Van to Asolo. We parked in the large municipal car park, the Parcheggio Coperto ‘Cipressina’ (free parking except at weekends and bank holidays) and strolled up towards the town centre using Via Forestuzzo and Via Robert Browning.

When last in Asolo I intended walking to the 12th century castle ruins (La Rocca) which tower over the town but Vanya and I so much enjoyed sitting in the sun drinking chilled Prosecco that we left it too late. Together with Craig, I was determined to put that right this time. We enjoyed a glass of Prosecco with Vanya and Julie at one of the bars on the picturesque Piazza Garibaldi (once known as the Piazza Maggiore) and then, leaving the ladies to enjoy a second glass, we set off on the short steep walk up to the castle.

We made it (after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing) but ‘Sod’s law’, La Rocca was closed! There was a sign at it’s entrance advising it is open to the public only at weekends and bank holidays. We could have done with that sign at the bottom of the hill. No matter, the exercise will have done us good and we could still enjoy the views over the surrounding countryside.

Upon our return from the castle, there was plenty of time for a wander around the town…

… and this time, unlike before, I was able to access the church, the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta.

The Santa Maria Assunta does not rank amongst the most beautiful of Catholic churches and neither, I think, does it have a great deal of history (it’s all relative) but it does have a very good copy of Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ the original of which we saw in a church in Venice many years ago. This copy is by Lorenzo Lotto but, to be honest, I know almost nothing about him.

The following day was spent driving around the Prosecco Hills, pausing briefly at Vadobbiadene and Vidor for a drink but that meal of a couple of days ago was still hurting and I was in no mood for either eating or drinking. Shame because this is a beautiful part of Italy with some great and very unique local produce. I’m talking drinks and food.

The Veneto Region is most famous for it’s Prosecco. I went into some detail about this fine sparkling white wine in a previous blog so; I’ll not risk repeating myself now except to say that Prosecco is made predominantly with the local Glera grape and Asolo Prosecco was granted DOCG status back in 2009. I don’t think I have ever mentioned that Asolo Prosecco was the first Prosecco to include an ‘Extra Brut’ category? I find that category too dry but Vanya adores it.

Other drinks which simply have to be mentioned when talking about the Veneto Region are Grappa (originated in Bassano de Grappa in the Vicenza Province of Veneto), Amarone (my favourite Italian red wine produced in Verona Province) and Aperol (this bright orange liqueur was created in Padua in 1919 and is used to make the Aperol Spritz – one part soda, two parts Aperol and 3 parts Prosecco).

So far as food is concerned, the Veneto Region favours polenta and rice over pasta (and I can relate with that). This is true across all of the Veneto Region and most especially across the province of Treviso (of which Asolo is a part). One very famous Italian dessert which originated in Treviso is Tiramisu, first created by chef Roberto Linguanotto in the 1960’s.

Anyway, enough about food and drink – I’m off for a beer.

Feistritz im Rosental (Carinthia), Austria September 2023 (Tour 8)

On our way to Italy after a great but all too short weekend in Enzesfeld, we paused for the night at the small town of Feistritz im Rosental in the Carinthian Region of Austria. Immediately upon arrival however I spent the afternoon walking the even smaller town (read ‘hamlet’ given it’s size) of Suetschach.

Surrounded by some beautiful hills Suetschach is a pretty little place (full of unusual metal art works and an amazing church). I have since read that Feistritz used to be part of Suetschach but it merged in 1973 with neighbouring Weizelsdorf and as a consequence later received market town status in it’s own right (1996). Suetschach is now considered a remote suburb of Feistritz.

The Parish Church in Suetschach was locked and I was unable to get beyond the front porch but what I could see from there was enough for me to want to go back for a proper look. There’s also an interesting chapel in the church grounds commemorating the area’s fallen in the two World Wars. What sets this particular chapel apart from others I have seen in Germany and Austria is that alongside the name of each person who fell is a photograph of the individual. I’ve never seen that before. It brings it all home.

Then, with the evening coming on and the hamlet’s sole pub closed for a late summer break, it was back to the campsite at Feistritz (Naturcamping Juritz) which even by Austrian / German standards proved to be first class. The facilities are all 5 star but it is the excellent restaurant which sets this campsite apart. Vanya wasn’t eating but I enjoyed a really good scampi dish and a fine Chardonnay. It was a shame we couldn’t stay longer but we’d arranged to meet some other friends in Italy and had to leave early the next morning.

The food in the Restaurant Juritz was seriously tasty; the wines were good and; the service was most attentive. There was a beautiful sunset which could have made for some great photo opportunities at the nearby lake lake but I wasn’t about to let such a good repast go to waste.

There also looked to be a wide range of hill walking opportunities in the area. Now that too is worth revisiting this campsite for but next stop Asolo in Italy.