Garbagne (Piedmont), Italy

I have no idea as to why we decided to stop in Garbagne in rural Piedmont (probably just looking for a half decent campsite either in or close to a town or village where we could get a meal and a glass of wine) but, after a quick explore I really didn’t expect anything of the place. I was in for a surprise.

Garbagne is a small village through which the SP120 road passes. In Garbagna, they call this part of the SP120 the ‘Via Roma’ but that is a tad grand. The SP120 is a thoroughfare; it doesn’t go to Rome or anywhere else of any significance. The village has maybe half a dozen narrow streets, the longest of which, the Via XIV Marzo, runs parallel with the Via Roma and connects the villages two squares. Piazza della Chiesa, at the eastern end of the village, is a dry featureless square holding the larger of the village’s two churches, the ‘San Giovanni Battista Decollato’ (or Church of St John the Baptist) and a rather plain looking town hall. The larger, prettier, well shaded Piazza Doria at the western edge of the village accommodates the much smaller ‘Oratory of San Rocco’, a restaurant (the Bocu), a cafe bar and two tiny shops (a greengrocer and a general store). The shade on the Piazza is provided by four large chestnut trees which shelter the square’s centrepiece, a stone arch which straddles an old well – once the villages’s sole water supply. There are a few fixed steel benches under the chestnuts and a scattering of tables and chairs had been placed outside the Bocu and the cafe bar but all were empty. The village appeared deserted. It was a hot summer afternoon with the temperature in the shade well up into the high thirties. Garbagne was about as sleepy a place as you could imagine on a seriously hot Sunday in rural Piedmont.

That evening Vanya and I were among the first to take one of the ten or so tables outside the Bocu Restaurant. By the way, Bocu is short for Bottegacucina which means ‘small shop’ which, no doubt, is what the restaurant once was. There is no room inside for any dining tables; all are outside on the square. It was just as well that we arrived early because we didn’t have a reservation and within twenty minutes or so all of the tables were occupied. So too were the tables at the nearby cafe bar. It was just after 8.30 pm and the heat from the day’s hot sun was fast fading. Children were filling the square. Groups of friends who had been stuck inside their homes until the heat was gone were now free to run and play. The square had become a cheerful, bustling playground. It was the children’s parents who were settling at the tables around us. Tables were being extended, more chairs were produced and dragged noisily into position. The banter was loud. Everyone seemed to know each other and it appeared the elders were as happy as their children to escape the afternoon’s confinement.

The Piazza Doria was a hive of activity. Almost half of the village’s 600 or so residents must have been on the square. The change in atmosphere was as super as it was surprising. We were always going to have an enjoyable evening in such an agreeable setting and so it proved. The food and the service and the reception we received from those around us made for a great evening. Of course, having a Nala and a Beanie around always helps break the ice.

So what about the food and wine? I’m not so sure Vanya got it right with her choice of stuffed tomatoes but my veal and the accompanying wine was delicious. The veal came with a mildly spicy tuna sauce (and what I took to be a very large pickled caper) while the wine, chosen by the proprietor was a local Barbera – really smooth. He told me it is produced just 5 kilometres from where we were sitting.

The only downside of that first evening in Garbagne? The bloody church bells wouldn’t stop ringing. No matter.

The friendly reception we received that first evening warranted our staying on another night. I spent the next day further exploring the area around the village and visited the local 9th century castle which the ‘Borghi piu belli d’Italia’ describes as “perfect for a stroll and to enjoy a panoramic view”. Forget it. The castle amounts to little more than a simple gatehouse and a tower which is almost totally reduced to rubble. As for the panoramic view, you can forget that too. Such sites are there to promote tourism…

We didn’t regret staying on. There’s another small bar (very much a local’s bar) on the corner of Via Novi and Via Roma. I had used it a couple of times (popping in for a cooling beer while exploring the area) and Vanya and I stopped by for a few drinks after dinner. Once again, the welcome we received from the bar owners and the locals was fantastic. A word of warning, however, don’t ask for a large wine unless you want half a bottle of wine free poured into your glass. They serve large measures.

We will certainly remember Garbagne, not so much for the place as the people. You could not find a more welcoming village.

Asolo (Veneto), Italy August 2022

This day was to be all about Prosecco wine. It started early in the morning in the delightful little town of Asolo, one of Italy’s famous Borghi* and; then took us up and around the Prosecco Hills. It continued along much of the Prosecco Road (Conegliano to Valdobbiadene) and; concluded with a wine tasting session in the capital of the Prosecco wine world, Valdobbiadene, and me becoming a convert to Prosecco – well, to the good ones.

Asolo was founded in Roman times but reached it’s zenith while under the control of Venice and not long after the Venetians had ‘persuaded’ Caterina Cornaro (Queen of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia) to cede Cyprus to Venice and take exile in Asolo. It is generally understood that the town prospered as a direct result of Caterina Cornaro moving to Asolo and living in what has since become known as the Castello della Regina Cornaro. That would have been during the period 1489 to 1509. In 1509, the League of Cambrai (at war with Venice) attacked Asolo and forced her to flee and she died in Venice the following year.

We parked the Van in a large (free, except at weekends) car park and walked up into the old town through the arch on the Via Forestuzzo. This followed on to the pretty arcaded Via Browning (named after the English poet Robert Browning) with it’s handful of artisan style shops, directly to the centre of the old town. The Piazza Garibaldi is marked as the old town centre on the local map but in truth there is no central square; the centrepoint is the Fontana Maggiore (fountain) which sits just beyond the Hotel Duse amidst a couple of cafe bars, Asolo’s cathedral (the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta) and the Civic Museum, which is connected to the Castello della Regina Cornaro. It’s a pretty spot.

Asolo is a small compact town which can easily be seen within a day and it is very picturesque but the real delight is it’s calm and tranquility. After a brief look around the town and, in particular, the Castello della Regina Cornaro we were content to relax in the shade outside a little restaurant on the ‘Piazza Garibaldi’ and take brunch – the local cheese, ham and of course a Prosecco.

Some would argue that we should have walked up Mount Ricco, on the edge of the town, to the 12th/13th century Rocca Fortress for it’s views over Asolo and the broader Veneto countryside but; this day was about chilling and sipping chilled Prosecco so, we gave it a miss. Asolo had that effect on me. We were both content to sit peacefully in the shade, nursing our wine and watching the world go by although; in Asolo the world moved very slowly. This was a week day (no weekend tourists from Venice)… Why tire ourselves out exploring?

It was a slow walk back to the Van, notwithstanding that it was all downhill, and we took time to view some of the finer, more impressive villas on the way.

Quite a few personalities have lived in or at least visited Asolo for extended periods and many have left their mark. There are a series of steel plaques carved into the pavement towards the top of the Via Forestuzzo, recognizing some of those personalities – most especially Freya Stark (writer and explorer), Robert Browning (poet) and Eleonora Duse (Italian actress) but others, Ernest Hemingway (writer and journalist), Wilma Neruda (Violinist) and even Princess Margaret (younger sister to ERII) have also sought peace in Asolo.

We really had to tear ourselves away from the town… but on to Valdobbiadene.

* Borghi – The literal translation of ‘Borgo’ into English is ‘Village’. Borghi is the plural. So far as I can determine “I Borghi piu belli d’Italia” is a list of 313 beautiful villages in Italy as identified by the National Association of Italian Municipalities to help promote small Italian centres. The Association’s criteria for admission would appear to be “a fascinating small Italian town, generally fortified and dating back to the period from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance… Whether Medieval or Renaissance, sea or mountain, rural or lake, all… certified Borgos represent the best of Unknown Italy…”. This initiative is perhaps similar to the French ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’.

Alberobello (Puglia), Italy October 2020

Alberobello is a World Heritage Site that I had intended calling in on during my return from the Balkans early in 2018. It didn’t happen then but it has now.

The town is known for its “trulli” which are unique to Puglia and in particular the Itria Valley. They are cylindrical stone walled huts with cone shaped roofs which are invariably topped with a spire and often adorned with crudely painted religious or superstitious markings. They are a drywall construction (no mortar is used) of roughly worked limestone blocks with the conical roof being made of ever smaller blocks and then topped with a final layer of flat angled stones so that rain water flows away from the building. The walls of each “trullo” are very thick so as to keep the inside warm in winter and cool in the summer and, nowadays, the walls are usually whitewashed with the conical roofs being left grey. This makes for a very picturesque building and Alberobello has almost 2,000 of them.

Quite often a number of trulli will be clustered together thus creating several rooms (Trullo Sovrano, the Sovreign Trullo, is the largest in Alberobello with several rooms spread over two very distinct floors) and there is even a trullo church, the Sant Antonio Church. Alberobello is a picture postcard town and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

The trulli originated some time in the 1500’s when the Acquaviva family, feudal lords over the Itria Valley, sought to avoid paying property taxes to the king. They ordered local peasants to build dwellings without mortar so that, in the event of a royal inspection, they could be dismantled very quickly and with the peasants in hiding the inspector could not then call in taxes against an inhabited settlement. Hard luck on the king and most especially the peasants who had to set about rebuilding their homes until the next inspection. This went on some 200 years until discontented citizens appealed directly to the king and he gave Alberobello royal town status and so freed the inhabitants from the rules of feudal lords.

We wanted to see Alberobello at night and that first evening were given a lift into town by a local who dropped all four of us (Vanya, Nala, Beanie and myself) behind the Chiesa dei Santi Medici Cosma e Damiano (the Basilica Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian) with a promise that he would collect us in 2 hours time. He also advised us to make our way down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Piazza del Popolo where we could access the two main trulli areas of Rione Monte and Rione Aia Piccolo. That gave us just enough time to both wander the Rione Monte area and catch a couple of drinks at a bar on the Piazza del Popolo. We would return the next day to properly explore both areas.

The Rione Monte is a large, brightly lit pedestrianised area built on a slope overlooking the Piazza del Popolo. It is covered with trulli; over 1,000 of them. Not all of these particular trulli are homes; many have been converted to cafe bars, restaurants, small shops selling local produce (linens, jewellery, local sweets, and model trulli etc) and tourist accommodation. In fact, almost all of Rione Monte seems to have been given over to tourism notwithstanding that the Sant Antonio Church (also built in the trulli style) towers above this particular area. No matter, it is still truly beautiful (forgive the pun).

Two buildings in the Rione Monte deserving special mention are (a) the Casa d’Amore, built in 1797 and not a love nest as the name might suggest but the home of one Francesco Amore who was a ringleader in the uprising against the feudal lords which led to Alberobello becoming a royal town and (b) Il Pozzo Illuminato, an unusual shop selling the most bizarre ceramics and old movie photographs (in addition to the ever present model trulli).

Il Pozzo Illuminato

We returned to the town the next day to see Rione Aia Piccola and revisit Rione Monte. Aia Piccola is a largely non commercial, wholly residential area of 400+ trulli which sits opposite Rione Monte. It looks and feels lived in and with few if any tourist shops it appears far more authentic than it’s counterpart on the opposite side of the Piazza del Popolo.

We thoroughly enjoyed wandering in and around the area’s narrow winding streets and were delighted to be called into one trullo by the gentleman who still lived there. His was a clean but cluttered little property of three connected trulli. He shared a glass of Primitivo wine and some Amoretti biscuits (which we were encouraged to dunk in our wine!) and invited us to view his grandmothers old trullo which was, let us say, more sparsely and traditionally furnished but still quite homely. His grandmother’s property also comprised three connected trulli but, having a number of significantly sized arched alcoves, hers offered considerably more storage and living space.

After Aia Piccola we had time to both eat an al fresco lunch on the Piazza del Popolo and revisit Rione Monte. In the cold light of the day (except it wasn’t cold) and after visiting Aia Piccola, Rione Monte appeared far more commercial and therefore not quite so appealing as the previous evening but that is perhaps to be expected after seeing Aia Piccila and that comment should not detract from it’s overall beauty.

I’ve long said that as a place to visit and for things to see and do, Puglia can compare with any of the other better known regions of Italy (Rome, Venice, Tuscany, etc) and it can only be a matter of time before Puglia will begin to receive the same media attention as it’s more illustrious neighbours. That is perhaps when tourism will start to detract from places like Alberobello but for the present, so glad it is there and to have seen it!

POST SCRIPT: Alberobello completely overwhelmed me. I forgot to mention that we made our way from Bisceglie to Bari to catch our ferry to Albania (en route to Greece); we checked in, got our tickets and were about to board the ferry when, after learning of Covid restrictions between Albania & Greece and then Greece & Italy, we decided to cancel it all and stay in Italy. That means more time in Puglia!!

Dozza (Bologna), Italy September 2020

Journey from Villagio Sanghen wasn’t too far (126 miles) and mostly by the Autostrada but longish stops first at Lidl and then a motorway service station for lunch saw us arrive at Dozza in the Emilia-Romagna Region much later than we expected. Rather than rush around the place, we decided to spend the night in the Van on a very quiet and secluded car park on the west side of Dozza and leave the trip to the coast until the next day. That gave us time to properly explore the town during what was left of the afternoon and then return in the evening for a meal in a local restaurant.

Not far from Imola, Dozza is a small hilltop town overlooking the Sellustra Valley. It’s houses are built along the lines of old castle walls in a long thin shape which taper at both ends, almost like a spindle. At the eastern end of the spindle is an entry arch and at the western end, connected by two almost parallel cobbled streets, is the Rocca Sforzesca – Rocca Fortress. It is almost wholly pedestrianised with only the locals who live between the entry arch and the castle allowed to drive in the town.

It is magical – a medieval village doubling as an open air art gallery. More than 100 (some say 200) brightly coloured frescoes decorate it’s houses, shops and municipal buildings. There’s an abundance of colour everywhere you look but it is not graffiti style street art; it is far more. It is all to do with the “Biennale del Muro Dipinto”, a festival of painted walls which takes place in September every two years and which sees famous national and international artists descend on the town to paint permanent works on the walls of publicly and privately owned buildings. It is a street art museum and quite wonderful. Sod’s law – It’s been taking place every two years since 1960 and it was supposed to take place this year but it is a casualty of Covid.

Not just murals…

It cost 5 euros but I just had to pop into the Rocca Sforzesca (Rocca Fortress). The original fortress was built 1250 but extended significantly some 250 years later and then remodelled again in the 16th century when the Malvezzi-Campeggi family sought to transform it into more of a dwelling place than a castle. Most of what you can see now is 15th century. With the exception of the dungeon and the kitchen which are packed with their respective fixtures and fittings the inside of the castle is quite sparsely furnished but there is enough there to provide a real mood about the place and everything is authentic.

Views across the countryside from the top of the fortress are breathtaking and the light was, I imagine, an artists dream. Although dotted with small woods of Oak, Chestnut and Ash the rolling countryside is largely cultivated with a mix of wheat fields, strawberry plantations, apricot and peach orchards and, of course dominating everything, an abundance of grape vines. This is the land of the Sangiovese and Trebbiano di Romagna reds and the Albana and Pignoletto white wine. Vanya will be interested in the Pignoletto (Grechetto) which is this Region’s Sparkling Wine or Frizzante. Not to be confused with Spumante, “Frizzante is softer, rounder and has frothier bubbles” or so I am told.

Talking of wine, the basement of the fortress holds an Enoteca (regular readers of this blog will perhaps recall the Enoteca I visited in Tuscany 2 years ago – that one cost me a small fortune). We were more prudent this time – just 4 bottles; 3 for Vanya and 1 for me.

That evening we left the dogs sleeping in the van for a couple of hours while we walked back into Dozza for something to eat. The cuisine in this region, Emilia-Romagna, is considered among the best in Italy. Particular products include Parma Ham (Prosciutto), Parmisan Cheese, Modena Balsamic Vinegar and some famous Tagliatelle Pasta dishes that Vanya was keen to try.

We found a very welcoming trattoria, Osteria di Dozza, with the chef coming out of the kitchen to explain the dishes (we cannot read Italian and the rest of the staff could not handle English). We chose a local cheese board to start with and then Vanya went for the Tagliatelle while I opted for grilled leg of mutton with garlic & rosemary potatoes.

The town was as magical in the evening as during the day…

What is most amazing about Dozza is that it is not at all touristy. There are no coachloads of tourists (we appeared to be the only visitors in the place during both the afternoon and evening) and absolutely no souvenir shops. It remains a simple village without any of the chaos and stress that now seems a part of everyday life. I do hope we find more like this one.

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. There’s the view south from the station (see above) and…

… there’s the view south from where I drank my espresso and that’s the way I’m heading

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 way forward

All too soon I was approaching Vernazza.

…see above, that’s my first sight of Vernazza from the trail. You can just make out a castle tower on the rock below

… and there it is in a little more detail. It took just under an hour to walk from Monterosso to Vernazza (that’s without pushing it and stopping frequently to take photos)

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 and …

… 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.

   

… Above, there’s just the one main walkway to take you up and down from the small harbour but there are a number of smaller paths filtering off this walkway, especially on the north side

     

… 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.