A Travellerspoint blog

La Toscana Part 2

A walk in Tuscany

sunny
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Sunday is a special day for Italians. They respond to the call of the bells and attend mass, enjoy a large dinner and by the evening, the men are ready to get out of mamma's hair and enjoy the camaraderie of their friends at a local bar, where they can enjoy the football and a friendly game of cards. After our adventure in Florence, we determined to have a few easy days; certainly Sunday evening was going to be shared with the locals at our local bar, the Bar Tabacchi. This name is not given lightly. The counter behind the bar is stacked with piles of various cigarette packets of every denomination and associated paraphernalia. No one is allowed to smoke in the bar of course, that is except for the publican. He seems to have a fag permanently hanging out of his mouth, unless he is in the process of reaching for another...

We strolled down the hill, round the corner and entered the bar to find all the locals gathered around a large projector screen, watching the football, Lazio vs Bologna. Ian decided to try out his burgeoning Italian language skills and approached the barmaid. "Mi piacerebbe uno whisky and...(he turned to Cath, who indicated that she'd happily settle for a grappa..) "and a grappa" he finished lamely. The barmaid looked mystified. Immediately reverting to English he asked "Could I have a whisky and a grappa please?" Somehow she got it and said "No whisky." Ian opted for a brandy instead and we retired, somewhat shaken, to sitting behind the old boys gathered around the screen, to watch the football. It was then we noticed that not one patron in the bar was drinking alcohol.... "They don't drink on Sunday" Cath whispered in explanation. We quietly finished our drinks and exited the bar, lesson learned. An early night then.

Although we had decided to rest up, this didn't mean we were allowed to do nothing. The next morning Cath announced that she would make a picnic lunch and we could walk to the nearby village of Rigomagno. Armed with food and drinks, we set off down the hill from Lucignano. Down, down and down. It was a surprisingly long way, but eventually we were on the flat, pacing away and only pausing to leap off the side of the road when another lorry came thundering by. There was no roadside path, so it was either the road or the rather spongy ground in the olive groves beside.

The countryside up close is just as pretty as it is from afar. The villas surrounded by their productive fields are scattered along the way, looking sleepy in the early spring. Most trees are yet to come into leaf, but there is an air of expectancy, fruit is just a little while away. It was also lovely to hear the twitter of birds and fat bumblebees bumping and buzzing. Eventually though, the gradient took on a more menacing note. We started to climb up the hill to Rigomagno. One in four, two in four and then four in four. Damn if we couldn't have done with a couple of donkeys to ride. We struggled on manfully and finally made it to the top, where we found.... nothing. Apparently, Rigomagno had been razed in the 17th century for not supporting Siena in war and had paid the price. The locals however didn't take it lying down. After the Sienese had left they rebuilt the entire place, unfortunately without a store or inn of any kind. But the unkindest cut of all for two completely exhausted walkers was that there was no bus home! So it was that we walked all the way back down, down and down the hill, where joy of joys we found a small cafe bar, La Trombone and the actual town of Rigomagno. The afternoon found us sipping a couple of glasses of vino rosso, waiting for the bus, which arrived two hours later to take us home. And so it was, that Tuesday was a very, very lazy day. One of the privileges of long term travel is days spent doing not much, a quick walk to the shops, cooking a meal, reading a book and naturally sampling the local vino and fare was par for the course.

After doing nada on Tuesday, we headed for Siena on Wednesday.

The bus trip to Siena was a typical Tuscan picture which included very large villas dotted along the hillsides. As we entered Sienna the ancient red bricked walls loomed above us as the bus wound it's way toward the top of the hill, thank god we didn't have to walk all the way up another hill. We had been a bit excited and exited the bus a couple of stops before the top, having read that the town is a car free zone, so a small climb and we were standing at the cross roads between the Centro Storico and the market. As always Cath became very excited at the thought of a market and we veered away from the historic centre into the bustling crowds. We seem to have a knack or maybe it's a nose for finding market day in Italy. Sienna is the cultural and logistic capital of the province and it was obvious from the size of the market; hundreds of stalls selling clothes, homewares, flowers and finally food, food and more food. Cath was instantly in love; salami to the left, formaggio to the right, porchetta in the middle (not to leave out fruit and veg but really who cares when there is salami, cheese, bread and porchetta?) Did we mention the porchetta? You could smell it for miles and the mouth watering aroma would draw us back later for a panini filled with freshly roasted pork; heaven when eaten in a Tuscan park, in the sun and paired with a Peroni. After sampling a number of salami, Cath made her choice and Ian managed to drag her away to get some culture, in the historic centre.

If Florence is the grand old dame of Tuscany, Siena is the pretty sister. Think meandering streets (not overflowing with tourists), mini piazzas filled with frescoes and statues hidden behind pale pastel walls all winding toward the top and just before you reach the top of the town, the enormous Piazza del Campo. We were so lucky to have arrived in Siena on a warmish, spring day and there were couples everywhere laying on the pavement enjoying the sun. Again it is to hard to describe the beauty, google it. We spent some time enjoying the sun and taking photos before we headed into a tiny covered alley, ever upward toward the Cathedral. The arrival of spring had obviously brought the joie de vivre out in the Italians and everywhere there are flowers, especially mimosa, which we had mistaken for wattle. It turned out that our day in Sienna coincided with International Women's day and as tradition apparently dictates, the men were out in force buying vibrant yellow garlands for their women. What nice chaps they are?!

Now we are not normally given to paying to go into churches, in fact Cath maintains she went to mass often enough as a child to have earnt the right to go into them for free! But we just couldn't resist the urge to see this one. Much like Florence, it is a black and white marble striped building with an ornate marble entrance; apparently stripes were big that century - but not quite as imposing, more lady like than the powerful Catedral Di Santa Maria Di Fiori in Florence. The entrance fee to the Duomo di Siena included a tour of the dome, both inside and out, entrance to the attached baptistry, crypt, museum, the piccolo library and finally the unfinished part of the church, the Facciatone. It turned that the tickets were well worth it, the church is, to put it simply, a marvel from floor to ceiling. Regardless of belief it is amazing to see such intricate and detailed work in every corner and as our guide pointed out, even the bits that would never be seen by anyone but the workers (and now us) were made to be beautiful. We were very careful moving past the 700 year old stained glass! It was a little scary walking around the outside of the building and both of us had wobbly legs, but that was nothing compared to what was to come at the Facciatone. It is a a five story facade, which was supposed to be the outer wall of the completed cathedral but due to the black plague, work was never completed - again google it, it is worth a look. We knew we were climbing it, we knew where we were going to end up, but nothing quite prepared us (not even the four hundred very narrow winding steps) for what we would be in for at the top. We scrambled out onto the top of a portion of a not completed building, just barely wide enough for a person to stand on with a wall just over knee height the only thing between us and the flagstones below. Now neither of us are great lovers of heights, but the view, oh my the view. Across the terracotta rooftops, to our left the Chianti hills and beyond them the snow capped Italian Alps, to our right the Montagnola (more hills) and of course in the middle the picture of Tuscany that lives in all our heads; it was enough to forget our fears and simply enjoy the vista. After all those steps, a quick visit to see the rest of the sites on the tickets and tummies grumbling we were off in search of the aforementioned porchetta panini before heading for home.

On our arrival back in Lucignano, Cath was determined to find a hairdresser she had located on Facebook and we were off down the hill to make an appointment, not expecting that the appointment would be within the hour but it was and after a short break at home she was off to try and get a cut and colour using her improving Italian language skills. It turned out that the hairdresser, Ana, was learning English and between that and Cath having some school girl Italian they managed to have quite a nice time, for 3 hours! Oh and fortunately, Ana's friend who had been to Australia on holiday turned up and they had a lovely chat while Cath turned blonder than ever.

We were due for a couple of home days and of course we must attend our local market day on Thursday's, so we shopped up a storm stocking the pantry and fridge, dropped Ian's vintage hat off for dry cleaning and spent some time planning for our upcoming weeks in Italy including a trip to Rome, hiring a car to discover more of Tuscany and considering where else we might want to see: Venice? Naples? Milan? So many to choose from. We call these days work days and they are becoming a very enjoyable part of our lives as we learn to "slow travel".

Friday was a lazy day, catching up on some calls, whilst keeping an eye on the clock. We had dinner planned for eight at a highly recommended local restaurant Il Gocchino. A delightful meal of a complimentary small soup, a little like pea soup, followed by Aperitivo: antipasti for Ian, a pecorino flan for Cath. As expected, they were both delicious. Primi: Ravioli with pear and pecorino for Ian and Spaghetti with artichokes, prosciutto and parmesan for Cath. Secondi: we shared bistecka, essentially a monster T bone steak, cooked to perfection, with mini roast potatoes and finally Desserti: 6 types of chocolate with a glass of cognac for Ian, whilst Cath had the most amazing chocolate ball, over which the waitress poured a coffee sauce. As she did so, the ball started melting to reveal biscotti and vanilla ice cream within. All this surrounded by berries and chocolate sauce. Wow! A couple of coffees rounded out this extravaganza and then we struggled out the door. A great meal, but it came with a price tag: €142 . One can't help but being equivocal about Trip Advisor recommendations, which this was. It had been listed as very reasonably priced. Perhaps the two glasses each of wine were rather expensive? Or maybe we were just a wee bit piggy? Così è la vita....

Posted by Seantiel 04:11 Archived in Italy Tagged tuscany Comments (0)

La Toscana Part 1

Living La dolce vita

rain 14 °C
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Having been on the road for 2 months with our longest stay in one place being 7 days we were keen to unpack all our gear and settle into our "home" for the next month; which given that we have 1 suitcase each didn't take very long and we were off to have a couple of drinks at the bar cleverly spied by Ian from our bedroom window (in truth you can't miss it). The bar/cafe is little more than a large room with a bar, a few tables, a couple of poker machine type things and the ubiquitous coffee machine, we ordered a couple of red wines and nodded hello to the 3 or 4 older gentleman before finding a seat. After a couple of wines we thought it best to explore our new home and hopefully find some dinner. As it turned out Wednesday night was a very quiet night in the town and we were out of luck with finding dinner or indeed anything open at all. Luckily we had pasta, garlic, chilli and Aldo's olive oil.
We awoke early on our first morning in Tuscany to the sounds of banging, doors slamming and loud voices; it was really early, even the birds were still in bed. Cath clambered out of bed, grumbling, only to find upon opening the shutters that the market was setting up, directly outside our window. Somewhat appeased by the thought of meandering through a Tuscan market, she returned to bed to snooze for a bit longer before making coffee and setting off to explore the town and market. The market at Lucignano is a fairly small one, just a few fruit and veggie stalls, seafood merchant and a few clothing and haberdashery stalls, but the town has a number of shops including 3 butchers (all with their own locally made specialties), a seafood shop, wine cellar and small but well stocked supermarket, so within an hour we were at home cooking up brunch, whilst listening to the locals catching up on the week's events and no doubt gossip. The market and town close down in the afternoon for siesta; from 1:30 until 4:30 the streets are empty and quiet, even the church bells don't ring, so not wanting to disturb local customs we too had a siesta. By 4:30 we were well ready to explore some more and after a quick meander through the streets around our apartment we left the walls via the piccolo gate and found ourselves at another wine bar/cafe overlooking the hills surrounding the town. It was a classic Tuscan vista, soft pale afternoon sunlight just peaking over the hills in the distance with olive groves, grape vines and fields ranging in colour from straw through deep russet to vivid green, like a rural patchwork quilt. Naturally this called for a glass of the local vino and before long we were seated on the terrace next to a group of young local lads who appeared to be toasting what we assume was a newly engaged couple; a lovely site to see young guys sipping Prosecco. We sat and watched the sun set over the hills turning the sky from bright orange to umber before heading home for dinner. Cath was thrilled to have local ingredients to cook with in a well stocked kitchen and of course their was vino, Chianti to be exact.

Lucignano is an ancient Tuscan hilltop walled town, built in the typical style with concentric circles, connected by small passages leading to the top where the ever present church sits in judgement of the townsfolk. As each generation takes over, they make their own additions and subtractions to the buildings, to the effect that stone leads to brick, leads to concrete, leads to render and then all back again. It is a higgledy piggeldy process which nevertheless results in a pleasingly rustic appearance, which manages to retain a semblance of the medieval times from whence it came. Our particular home takes up part of the ground floor and then climbs to the second floor without actually having a first floor, quite a remarkable feat, which we didn't notice for quite a few days. As the apartment door is situated on the second laneway uphill, it is only a two storey building, however as you proceed to the other end and gaze out our bedroom window over the first laneway going up hill, you find there are in fact two floors below you. Confused? We certainly were. Another of the delights to be found, is our washing line, a rope between two pulleys, which is accessed from the kitchen window. As the washing machine, which hides in one of the kitchen cupboards, finishes its cycle, the washing is taken straight out the kitchen window and attached to the rope, which is then pulled along for the next piece. Everyone has a similar affair and it is a rare treat to wander along the laneways observing nonna's gussets, pappa's socks and mamma's corsets waving gaily beside all manner of laundry.

All of the lanes and paths are cobbled in one way or another; small stones, large stones, flagstones, pavers, the occasional brick section and on the steeper downhill slopes, large cobblestones with chiselled indentations to help avoid slippage. Many of the locals, both within and without the village drive minuscule three wheel cars, such as piaggio, which are little more than glorified motorbikes with a double axle at the back and a little tray on top of this, mounted behind the front cabin, which in most cases has handlebars, rather than a steering wheel. You can often hear them grinding and wheezing as they tackle the steeper grades, the drivers dropping down through successive gears, until the poor little things are screaming for mercy. We both find them endlessly delightful to see!

By Saturday we had determined to visit Florence, our nearest major city. This necessitated a bus ride to Arezzo, which affords us an opportunity once again to admire the countryside. It seems that every possible hill has been terraced and tamed into accepting at the least an olive grove, if not a small orchard and of course a gentler slope is naturally filled with a vineyard. As we've mentioned elsewhere, the Italians are diligent in all areas of horticulture. It is very rare to find a plot of land that has not been subjugated into producing something and you can bet it has been cleaned, pruned and fertilised to a tee. The small towns? Well not so much. You do pass some tired and run down areas, that provide an unattractive contrast to the pretty villages, but these are the exception rather than the rule. From Arezzo, which we considered to be a distinctly unattractive town (but more on that later), we boarded the train for Florence, where we were booked in for a stay on Saturday night. As we have mentioned this train trip before, no need to recap. Florence duly arrived and we left the station armed with a google map on our phone and marched off. It was a good opportunity to see a different side of the town, about which so much romantic literature has been produced. Each turn took us into less and less pleasant surroundings until after negotiating more blind turns than the average football match, we finally arrived at our digs. The pictures we had seen of the accommodation showed a beautiful terrace leading to a glorious vista of a well treed park. What we got was a nondescript three storey building, sporting a ragged Italian flag, beside a railway line. We had arrived an hour early, thanks to our exhaustive practice in high speed marching drills, much to the discomfort of our host. Adamo was a nattily dressed little Italian chap who gave us a run down on what to see and where. He showed us around the accommodation. The promised fresco on the ceiling was invisible, the private bathroom was in fact to be shared with half a dozen other people and our room had a less than delightful view of the railroad, with the city centre off in the distance. No matter, we left our bags with Adamo and armed with his directions ploughed back into the city.

We are sure that anyone who has been to Florence must have encountered large crowds and our experience was no different. The place was awash with tourists. But who could blame them? As we emerged into the Piazza del Duomo, we were both completely awed by the Catedral Santa Maria del Fiori. It was raining, we were beset by hawkers, the crowds were large, but nothing could take away from the spectacle of the cathedral. It is an incredibly ornately carved building predominantly in green, pink and white marble, that together with the Baptistry of St John, decorated likewise, absolutely dominates the piazza. Beside it stands the Campanile de Giotto, a similarly carved tower. The three buildings are simply stunning and we both wandered around them almost in a daze. It is impossible to describe them, so all we can say is look them up, although pictures really cannot do justice to their beauty.

From the piazza, we strolled on through various other piazzas, admiring countless statues, including a copy of Michelangelo's David, to the Ponte Vecchio. It is really quite lovely and terribly romantic. Ian was somewhat disturbed by Cath's extreme interest in the jewellers shops, but he managed to negotiate her away with promises of lunch at a nearby restaurant that Adamo had recommended to us. After a few false starts, we finally found the place and were ushered to a table by the maitre'd. The following meals can only be described as excellent, the wine as playful and the desserts as tantalising. It is hard to describe the quality of the pasta, suffice to say "Nobody does it better". After lunch we wandered up to the Piazza Pitti which really does bring back to one the epic nature of Florence; the age and authority are unquestionable and you are left in no doubt of the power this feudal state once wielded. As marvellous as it all was, the rain had set in once again and so we elected to head back to our base. What ensued was a rather farcical journey on the wrong bus, then the right bus followed by the wrong path and then finally after some detours, the right path back. After that it was decided a good lie down was in order before heading out for dinner. Dinner was a fairly plain affair at a local pub, Hops, before a quiet night.

We arose early the next morning as we were determined to beat the rush to see the real David at Dell' Accademia. Sure enough we were in the top twenty of the queue waiting to get in, with only half an hour to wait. Cath popped over to a cafe to grab coffees and blackberry tarts, while Ian held our place in the queue. We were feeling very pleased with ourselves until unfortunately three vacuous American teenage girls joined the queue behind us. The conversation amongst them went "Like I said, like ,like we were like, like going to have our assignments like late, and I was like I don't really like , get it like you know what I mean." etc. etc etc. We were both ready to throttle them but fortunately the doors opened and we were, like, on our way... The statue of David has no doubt been written about extensively, so let's not go on, but it truly is a masterpiece and when one considers the basic tools used to create it, Michelangelo was a genius. Oh and you know how you can tell a good picture by the way the eyes follow you around the room? David's willy, poor little thing, seems to do the same....

From Dell' Accademia we headed for the Uffizzi Galleria, but sad to say, we had dallied too long and were disappointed to find a queue the size of ten roman legions already in place. We determined to return to Florence another day and headed for the station where we boarded the train back to Arezzo. It turned out to be our good luck though. The bus back to Lucignano was a couple of hours away and this afforded us the opportunity to find some lunch. Crossing the road from the station we headed into the city and found to our delight, the beginnings of a market. Arezzo has a famous antique market on the first Sunday of March and the Saturday before it, as it is advertised. As we followed the stalls up the hill, the mundane semi modern buildings gradually gave way to more and more ancient ones, until we found ourselves in the medieval heart of Arezzo. It had been hiding from us! With each stall we climbed higher until the last vestige of modernity was gone and we found ourselves in a lovely park at the top from where we could see the beautiful valleys that surround the city. The usual suspects were all there: olive groves, vineyards, villas, pencil pines, straw fields, birch forests and of course countless villas rising up to command their patches of earth. Many photos ensued until we finally wandered back through the cobbled laneways to grab an indian kebab for lunch before boarding our bus home. The difference between an Indian kebab from the Indian kebab shop and an ordinary kebab? It's made by Indians... We finally arrived home weary travellers and allowed ourselves the rest of the evening off.

Posted by Seantiel 06:24 Archived in Italy Tagged florence arezzo Comments (0)

L'Italia

Piran to Lucignano

semi-overcast 15 °C
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We arose early Tuesday morning, Cath was in the mood for croissants, so ducked down to the bakers while Ian busied himself in the shower. A delicious breakfast of apricot jam filled croissants and coffee and we were on our way. The air was crisp and fresh as we waited by the quayside for our bus. The multi coloured buildings provided a cheery backdrop, a little reminiscent of Tobermory, if perhaps not quite so bright, more pastel than primary colours.

The bus driver arrived and we boarded for the short trip to Koper, from whence we departed to Trieste, L'Italia at last. Trieste arrived far sooner than we had imagined, appearing quite enormous to us, considering the small towns and villages we had been frequenting. We disembarked and found our hotel no more than 150 meters away. As we were still quite early, we left our bags and ploughed off into the city.

Trieste sits on the coast at the northern end of the Adriatic and has clearly been a seafaring power in years gone by. We found a large square the Piazza Unità d'Italia by the sea, replete with impressive buildings, covered in the usual collections of statues frowning down at the tourists. As it happened, it was Shrove Tuesday and so there were many stalls set up, selling a variety of wares. We strolled along the quayside, arriving at the Canale Grande, where we finally chose a small cafe with quaint checked tablecloths. What an excellent choice!

Lunch consisted of Raviolini a Bologna for Ian, a wonderful dish of spinach and ricotta filled ravioli, smothered in a red wine and sausage mince sauce. Definitely a top ten meal for the trip and the harbinger of great meals to come. Cath had a Tagliatelli Carbonara and vowed that she would never make another as she couldn't possibly compete. Dessert was the omnipresent Tiramisu for Cath and for Ian a Crema Carsolina; both of these dishes confirmed Cath's claim that the Italians are premiere chefs. And of course the whole lot was washed down with a litre of fine Cabernet.

Feeling particularly jolly, we spilled out into the street and as we were walking back to the hotel, we heard a riotous noise, the source of which proved to be an enormous street parade, which appeared to celebrate the end of "Carnivale". It was truly hilarious to see all manner of people dancing, singing and generally acting the goat in the weirdest bunch of costumes imaginable. For the most part, the women were in dancing groups performing dance routines, but the men..... It appeared that all the men were determined to outdo each other as "Crossdresser of the Year", they wore wedding dresses, evening gowns, short skirts, skimpy tops, in one case a thong stretched to bursting - not surprising, considering they generally aren't made to carry a handful of wedding tackle. And of course trowels of makeup and false eyelashes that looked like they could whip a dozen sex slaves into submission! We had a great laugh and headed back to the hotel feeling quite uplifted. We had truly arrived in the land of la dolce vita.

Wednesday morning found us at the station, ordering a breakfast of rolls and coffee, Ian taking the first attempt at ordering, only to find (again) even the cafeteria staff are multilingual. By 9:30 it was all aboard the train for Venice, rolling across the plains between the coast on the one side and the snow capped peaks of the alps on the other. Well kept houses and of course neatly kept fields and vegetable plots rolled by. Clearly everyone was gearing up for spring.

Venice arrived in a rather dull way. The railway station is nowhere near the fabled canals and waterways, so we simply switched trains and once more continued our journey. This time we were headed toward Milan via Florence, or should we say Milano via Firenze? It is puzzling the way different languages feel the need to give different names to the various cities and towns in other countries.... By now the countryside was starting to change, the flat land gradually giving way to more undulating countryside, whilst concurrently, the snow capped peaks disappeared. The railway station at Florence was a clean, efficiently run operation and we smoothly transitioned onto the line for Arezzo. As we settled back, the train picked up speed and we were hurtling along at 120 kph in no time. How do you know when you are on a high speed train? The cows only have enough time to say "M" before you pass them. Now the countryside was Tuscany proper; gorgeous hills draped with olive groves, pencil pines, vineyards yet to burst into leaf, orchards, streams and rivers wending this way and that, and of course beautiful villas dotting the hillsides in the soft afternoon sunlight, somehow contriving to look impossibly like a painting. We were both captivated. Fortunately the journey navigated a large number of long and dark tunnels also, else we may have leapt off the train there and then.

At Arezzo, we exchanged the train for the bus and the final leg of our journey. If the vista from the train had been a pleasure, the view from the bus was even more so. From our vantage point, we were able to get a closeup of the villas and farmlets, all painted with the uniform ivory yellow which seems to be mandatory for the area, as are the green or brown shutters. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to deviate.

Lucignano suddenly loomed above as we climbed out of the Val de Chianna, which is apparently named after a local breed of cattle, raised for the famous local dish Bistecca di Chianna. What a site! Ian started singing "That's Amore" involuntarily, until Cath gave him a dig in the ribs. The village is straight out of the 12th century; belltower, church spire, castle keep and walls all conspiring together, with the crude stone construction method used in the walls, to take you way back in time. The olive trees and pencil pines, along with birches, yet to come into leaf only served to make the scene more romantic.

The bus dropped us off at the main gate, the Porta San Giovanni and we walked through agape, our suitcases bumping over the cobblestones as we made our way along a laneway and then up a steep hill to our little narrow street and finally arrived at our home for the next month: Vicolo del Pellegrino, Lucignano, Toscana. After a short wait, the grandfather of the owner, a lovely chap by the name of Aldo arrived and with not a word of English and Cath's extremely poor Italian, gave us a guided tour of the apartment, almost a house really: two double bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, lounge, hallway, entrance hall and staircase. All of this in a building that is 500 years old! Cath managed to understand enough to find out that:
the market is on Thursday, the heating is on, telephone Aldo for any problems and Aldo makes the olive oil provided in the apartment. With a big smile, a kiss on each cheek and a hearty Ciao, Aldo was on his way and we were left to settle into our new home. Ah, life in Tuscany begins.

Posted by Seantiel 06:46 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Mountains, Lakes and Mini Cities

Coffee with Kofi

semi-overcast 10 °C

The bus trip from Dubrovnik to Zagreb started with another scenic winding coastal road. The Dalmatian coast from Dubrovnik to Zadar is littered with islands floating in jade waters, inlets with quaint villages of white stone buildings and terracotta roofs with the ever present olive groves and pencils pines neatly arranged within small stone fences. There is no shortage of stones. After a few hours heading up the coast we diverted into the mountains for a lunch stop, gawked at the beautiful view and then it was up and away into the mountains proper. Huge peaks, kilometres of tunnels, massive bridges and barren rocky landscape. Finally we reached the top of the peaks and wide open valleys appeared with larger settlements, orderly fields making a patch work across the valleys between small 3 storey houses, of varying colour from pale green through tangerine to iridescent yellow. Large stands of dark green pine trees are interspersed with naked silver birch and the early signs of spring blossom on leafless fruit trees; the scenery made more romantic by a haze of smoke settled in the valleys, caused by controlled burning of grass presumably by farmers in the area. We had heard and read that Zagreb is the financial and administrative capital and so we planned to spend one night there before heading on to Ljubjlana, Slovenia.

Alighting from the bus at Zagreb, we were pleased to be able to catch a quick tram trip to our accommodation, The Main Square Residence, which, oddly enough, sits at the edge of the main square. A lovely art nouveau building which is in the process of being restored from years as an office block. The receptionist carried our luggage to our rooms and in answer to our questions, suggested Boban's restaurant, which is apparently owned by a star local footballer. Despite our misgivings, it turned out to be delightful. An antipasti of various meats and cheeses was followed by the most enormous sirloin we had ever seen, to share. It was all absolutely delicious, particularly the accompanying red wine and we finished the lot off with dessert and coffee. You've probably guessed that we almost got stuck in the alleyway on the way home, such was our girth and to be fair the road was only wide enough for one or two cars!

An early night saw us well rested by the next morning and raring to board the train for Ljubljana. We had envisaged a return to flash Euro style trains and were slightly disappointed to find that ours was in fact an older style train; not to worry, without delay we were being whisked through the suburbs of Zagreb toward the border. Again Cath’s Australian passport caused some interest at the border and Ian’s UK one was given a cursory glance, and to his ongoing displeasure, no stamp for him and two for Cath.

Once across the border into Slovenia we followed a broad dark green river, which had been dammed in several places, through bucolic valleys of trellised fruit trees, vines and fields ploughed, awaiting spring crops. The fields interrupted by large forests climbing the gently sloping hills where large houses and churches could be seen amongst the forest. Picturesque villages of no more than 30 houses, surrounding the ubiquitous church dotted the banks of the river and the slopes of the valleys. We had been struck by the tidiness of the rural areas in Croatia and this appeared to have continued into Slovenia, everything appeared very orderly and cared for.

As ever in this part of Europe it was not long before we were heading into mountain passes, where at times it seemed impossible that the train would not topple from a craggy outcrop into the river below. After chugging uphill for an hour or so we reached a plateau where fields gave way to a small city before we headed up the next peak. Eventually the countryside flattened out and in no time we were on the outskirts of Ljubljana. The numerous high rise apartments gave a somewhat false impression of the city as these quickly gave way to older buildings from the turn of the 19th century and suddenly we were at the station and walking through a rather modern CBD.

Our apartment was only 2 kilometres from the railway station, but we traversed a continually changing, but still well integrated collection of buildings, ranging from the ultra modern, to quaint and ancient. Our apartment on the 3rd floor of an otherwise nondescript, possibly communist era 5 storey building, turned out to be delightful, with a vista over a local park, filled with very old trees, a courtyard and one of many statues that we have since found throughout the city.

Sunday found us ready for a lazy stroll in the morning sunshine. Ljubljana is remarkably compact and we are, after all, only a few blocks from the river and centre of town. The mixture of architecture here is quite reminiscent of Prague. Whilst not as grand, it has a similar eclectic mix. There are broad boulevards along the river, populated by restaurants' tables and chairs and it was lovely to stroll past a flea market, negotiate three or five different bridges and have the opportunity to admire quite a large number of unusual sculptures (many appear to be by the same artist, whose style is fairly idiosyncratic one might say Daliesque). We finally found a table and chairs in the sun and sat back to enjoy the locals at their weekend.

Monday was market day. Although it is still the off season, there were plenty of stalls, both inside the traditional market building and outside where a variety of fresh vegetables were available. We staggered home, laden with bags of veggies, fruits, sausages, breads and a variety of stuff, which Cath was looking forward to turning into dinners and lunches and breakfast and more dinners!! The rest of the afternoon saw Cath whip up a storm of food, while Ian whipped out a couple of bottles of red and the blend culminated in a roast chicken dinner. With wine of course; oh and a quiet wee dram afterwards....

After a lazy day Tuesday, Wednesday was determined to be Lake Bled day. What a fabulous trip! We caught a very comfortable bus to Bled and as the lake actually sits right next to it, we were off immediately. As is our want, we decided to do the lake clockwise, after correctly noting that almost everyone else went in the opposite direction. By the time we had traipsed around the lake's edge, just past the town, we found a small grass embankment where we set up a picnic. The backdrop being the lake, the castle and enormous snow capped peaks set impossibly high was stunning. Sometimes the grandeur of nature just can't be captured in a photo... Anyway, having finished lunch off with Kremsnita, the local cake (think vanilla slice on steroids) we continued the walk around the lake, until we had reached the "Gondoliers" of Lake Bled. These men row Gondolas, out to the island, while standing up at the rear of the punts. We boarded and were in no time walking up the endless stone steps to the top of the island, where an ancient monastery still stands, Ian neglecting the traditional carrying of his bride to the top of the stairs; apparently this will happen when "my wife has the same surname as me". We were given half an hour to wander the island, before we were quickly returned to shore and finally completed our circumnavigation. A quick red wine overlooking the lake was required to warm up before we caught the bus home. We headed off to our local, a manga style street art covered but trendy bar where English is the 4th language of everybody but us, for a couple of night caps before returning to our lovely warm apartment.

Travelling for an extended time has given us the chance to have days where we relax and wander in our local neighbourhood, Thursday was one of those. Our apartment overlooks a park, gallery and embassies and it is great people watching sitting at the breakfast table with a couple of coffees and the newspapers. A wander through the Tivoli Gardens and home again, to keep out of the cold grey afternoon and plan our next steps, the coast of Slovenia and finally Italy.

Our last day in Ljubljana turned out to be a rainy grey day and although it was pleasant to see rain and not snow we decided it was best to have a few drinks, video chat to Australia and laze around, all in all a very successful rainy day. Never ones to let an opportunity for a drink pass us by we then wandered in the snow (you guessed it the rain gave way to snow) to our little local for a few quite Friday night drinks and by the time we were ready for home the streets were covered in a blanket of snow, making our last walk in lovely Ljubljana a very romantic, if slippery stroll home.

Saturday morning saw us up and about in beautiful sunshine for our trip to Piran, which is on the Adriatic coast and touted as the Jewel of the Adriatic. The bus trip was once again a pleasure, passing through countryside surrounded by huge snow capped peaks, fields covered in a thick blanket of snow and frost and small villages slowly bursting out of winter into spring. And then we rounded a bend and magic happened, enormous snow covered peaks surrounded beautiful jade green water, the Adriatic. The snow covered fields gave way to terraced groves of olive trees and grape vines tidily awaiting spring as we arrived into very touristy Porterose and finally our pretty seaside town of Piran. Piran is said to rival Venice, without the crowds. It does appear quite a bit smaller than we imagine Venice to be, but the gorgeously coloured buildings built right up to the shore are surely not far behind. A lovely afternoon spent wining and dining before an afternoon nap.

Posted by Seantiel 06:50 Archived in Slovenia Comments (0)

The Walled City

Dubrovnik

sunny 15 °C
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Dubrovnik is an impossible fairytale. As you approach it from the top of the hill, following the road that snakes down from a dizzying height, it gradually reveals itself as a group of inlets and promontories until you descend into the city proper, past the old town and feel that you are once again in a mundane European city. We were dropped off at the edge of the old city and walked down into the middle ages, the city being car free gives it an authentic old world feel. Worn ivory coloured flagstones everywhere. Ancient buildings staring down at us. City walls vast and towering, reminding one of the battles fought and lost in a bygone era, not to mention the new battles on our screens, think Game of Thrones, Star Wars and the latest retelling of Robin Hood.

We arrived in Dubrovnik late in the day, after dark, and found the old city a confusion of alleys, our navigation skills not aided by Ian’s feverish illness. We wandered back and forth, to the delight of a terrace full of restaurant patrons, who must have been counting the number of times we passed. Little did we realise that we were almost standing under it, until a kind young man directed us to the apartment, a few metres from where we were standing, of course! Clearly the locals are used to lost tourists. The apartment was located overlooking the old harbour and at night the bell towers and cathedral spires are luminous above the walls, making a fairy tale like scene. Cath quickly settled the dying swan into bed before heading out into the maze for supplies. It is actually a very small city and once orientated it is almost impossible to get lost, thankfully.

The next morning found Ian determined to stay in bed. He was convinced death was waiting just outside the door, but Cath had other ideas (you can take the girl out of nursing but......). A nag here, a goading there and Ian finally rose to the challenge. A hot shower later and we were on our way to the laundromat, which unfortunately was situated at the top of the high side of the old city, something like 14 flights of stairs. Ian collapsed into a bean bag while Cath negotiated the intricacies of automatic washing machines, with directions in Croatian.

By the time the laundry had been done, Ian had managed to frighten the other patrons out of the laundry with his barking, sniffing and whimpering, so we felt comfortable enough to move on. We deposited our washing around our flat. Did we mention the flat? It sits in the top corner of the last building before the old entrance fort to the harbour. The view from our window is absolutely the most beautiful picture one could want. The boats bob quietly in the quay below us, in pristine water against the backdrop of the old city and behind that the new city climbs the steep cliffs, above which looms the mountain. And of course the old city is completely out of a medieval picture book.

We both needed a bit of time to recouperate after the myriad of stairs climbed, it seemed going down was no easier than going up and an afternoon snooze was in order before a medicinal wine or two at a Buza Bar; Buza meaning hole in the wall in Croatia and well you would know what it means to Aussies. Again we entertained those who had been sensible and chosen to stay in an easy to find square; we meandered up and down the same streets time and time again searching for a way to the outside of the city walls, where the bars are located. That’s right, they hang from the outside of 100 foot walls. During summer tourists and locals alike come to drink, dive and swim from the cliffs! Finally we arrived, parched and ready for a drink to watch the sun go down. The selection of drinks was quite limited and one might say on the expensive side, so we slowly consumed a very average red wine, observed the arrogance of the selfie set and critiqued the eclectic, one might say poor, others might say tomnoddy, music selection whilst the sun slid into the Adriatic. While spring has most certainly sprung with warm sunny days, the nights are still cold and it was with relish we reached the warmth of the apartment for a home cooked meal….. and a few more wines.

Sunday found us, like young Oliver Twist, hungry for more. We had decided to cast our net wider than the old city and so boarded a bus at the Pilé Gate, headed for adventure. Alas, despite boarding an obscure bus which took us off to a dormitory suburb, we found little of interest and so stepped off in the new city and went for a walk. Cath somehow mysteriously directed us to, of all things, a seafood restaurant and before you knew it, she had ordered Scampi for herself and Squid (“Don’t worry darling, that’s what they call calamari here”) for Ian.

The restaurant, being as it was, somewhat upmarket, took it upon themselves to provide us each with an entree of whitebait, anchovy in a cherry tomato and a ball of tuna paste on a slice of lemon. Have we mentioned Ian’s problem with fish? It is not restricted to swimming with sharks, he doesn’t actually like to eat their friends either. Well, to everyone’s surprise, he ate the lot! Well not all of the tuna paste, but most. And so we sat back to await the arrival of the main course. If we might diverge for a moment though and mention that Orsan restaurant sits right on the quayside of the new city marina, an especially charming position, with the waves lapping gently right next to your feet and a vista of boats, hills and greenery. Absolutely lovely and a setting which had caused Ian to become positively relaxed and jovial.

Into this peaceful setting arrived Ian’s worst nightmare!

With a flourish, the waiter delivered our main course. Cath’s Scampi was generous to a fault, heads, bodies, legs - too numerous to mention, along with pliers to crack the wee beasties open. Ian’s dish was likewise, two whole squid, mottled pink and crimson, perfectly chared, something like four million legs or feelers or god knows what, like so many roasted worms crawling over the spinach and baby potato salad, stared up at him. The squid even had their flippers on! Ian was aghast! Cath, ever the intuitive one, realised right away that Ian was having trouble even registering what he was looking at. “Are you going to be OK eating that darling?” she kindly asked. Ian’s response closely resembled something like “Oggly Boggly Diddlemumph….” which Cath took to mean no!!!!!!!!!!!!! As it turned out, she was right and it was decided to swap meals immediately. Even though Ian has no truck with creatures with more than four legs, he bravely cracked and peeled his scampi, while Cath said she enjoyed the best “calamari” she had ever had. As a coda to the meal, might we mention that we were introduced to a delightful white Croatian wine….Obviously the wine was good, Ian ate the fish and their friends! Penance was required by Cath for ordering Ian’s worst nightmare and so dessert was ordered and scoffed with some delight by Ian, Cath never one to be left out joined in the fiesta of sweets and a long walk home was required to atone for our sins… and because the bloody bus driver drove straight past without a glance.

Mondays should never be rushed into and we were careful to avoid such a hazard, managing to get ourselves organised for a stroll around the walls just after second breakfast. It was clear that some climbing of stairs would be required but it must be said that we had underestimated the amount of upstairs and downstairs that would be required to complete this journey. The views however were absolutely worth it, every twist and turn brought a new photo opportunity, a fact that seems to be lost on most of the other visitors who are busy posing themselves in front of magnificent scenery. Surely you can hear the frustration that we have developed with the selfie obsessed and it is true that we have started exclaiming, in English of course, “it’s not you we came to see”; the next tactic we have planned is to stand just close enough to ruin the picture, Zoolander style. Dubrovnik from the height of the surrounding walls is somehow more beautiful than at street level as you can see into the courtyards, gardens and lives of the people who live here, largely as they have lived for many hundreds of years. They must be seriously in need of some soul saving though; it appears that there is a church per block! Having exhausted our legs with stairs and our eyes with magical vistas we retired for the afternoon before deciding that a game of cards and a few medicinal whiskies were in order.

Tuesday should also be treated with some caution and we again managed to get ourselves out of the house just before lunch. Perhaps there is something in the air in Dubrovnik. All the walking on this trip has taken it’s toll on Ian and his jeans were starting to resemble the saggy baggy elephant’s pants. So Cath nagged until a shopping trip was planned. Dubrovnik does not have a shopping district or large shopping centres and wanting to avoid the designer shops and price tags in the old city we headed for the suburbs. Quite quickly we located the jeans store and without much hassle Ian was kitted out with a new pair of skinny leg Levi’s. Conveniently there was a bakery just near the jeans shop, so it was with some excitement that Ian got a sausage roll, literally a sausage rolled in pastry and Cath a cheese pastry for lunch on a park bench by the marina.

We have discovered the secret to small cities, get on the local bus and go as far as it can before getting on another one and doing the same. This is made much easier in Dubrovnik as they all end up in the same place, however they are a little bit tricksy too. We had read that you are able to purchase a 24 hour bus ticket, rather than the usual one hour and went in search of such a thing. It seems there is a bit of a scam going whereby the ticket sellers deny having 24 hour tickets, indicate that you can only buy them at the Pilé gate, where the ticket office is closed and then sell you the hourly ticket. Haha, caught them though by getting the ticket just around the corner from where they had tried to scam us! An afternoon of bus cruising completed and it was wine time. Given that we had failed at buying decent wine to this point, a wine bar was in order and the Pucić Palace provided just the thing. We were initially attracted by a very silly sign which Cath identified with immediately “my super power is making wine disappear, what’s yours?”. We enjoyed a lovely glass of Croatian red wine and a great chat with the sommelier as we were the only customers, before purchasing a rather expensive bottle and heading home to consume it.

Unfortunately when one is travelling for some time there must be days of housekeeping and administration, Wednesday has become that day. Laundromat again and house decorating with undies and T shirts!

Thursday was our 7th and final day in Dubrovnik, we had planned to take the taxi boat to Lombruk Island but found it closed due to the winter season so we decided on a walk and picnic on Banje beach, adjacent to the Polce gate….. with wine, of course. It was definitely T shirt weather, so suitably attired, we spent a very relaxing afternoon, completing our blog, imbibing and generally sun loving.

We find ourselves now ready for the next adventure. We leave tomorrow morning for Zagreb, where we shall spend the night, before continuing on to Ljubljana, Slovenia for a week.

Ciao for now….

Posted by Seantiel 06:40 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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