A Travellerspoint blog

England 1

It were an overcast day.....East Anglia Part 1

overcast 16 °C
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The flight out of Italy was a flurry of Italian and English, constantly switching back and forth, as they do in Europe, exhorting us to do all of those things like grabbing the mask, breathing oxygen - even it seems there isn't any; inflating our jackets AFTER leaving the plane, but don't forget the SPECIALS - this is after all Ryan Air and for only £3 you can get four, not three scratchies. Honestly how these bilingual champions cope is beyond us. Oh and an extra mention to the head waiter - sorry on a plane is he called the purser? No that's what he does with his lips, steward perhaps? Whatever, he was the only person I have ever heard who was capable of reducing the Italian language to quiet urbanity. A marvellous, if somewhat indistinct effort.

The Alps just seemed to get bigger and more impressive as we flew on. They were still covered with snow at their peaks, although here and there you could see zig zagging tracks laid down by some intrepid climbers who had braved their way up. Fortunately we climbed up and up and so finally breasted the cloud cover, beneath which Ian suspected the mountains might just peek out and snag the plane's underbelly. It wasn't to be though and we passed into that quiet rumbly space where sleep comes more easily. It was only a flight of a couple of hours though and before long we began our descent over those green, green fields of home, which Tom Jones goes on about so regularly. The patchwork quilt of England unfolded below us, replete with small villages filled with impossibly pretty dolls houses, grouped into charming villages.

London Stansted was a breeze to negotiate for Ian. It is interesting to note in passing that automation continues apace. No human interaction was required as he passed through passport control. British passport holders stood at the gates until the lights turned green and then stepped forward to allow the machines to scan passports, faces and decide their acceptability. On their mute approval he passed into Blighty. It was a different story for Cath however, who spent 15 minutes with a very nice but inquistive passport control lady recounting each and every step of our tour to date, and then had to provide a short lesson on how to give up work and travel the world. Finally we collected our baggage and walked out into England and the Car Rentals Bus, collected our car from the rental agency, where to be honest the car rental guy had possibly less personality than the aforementioned machines, and were on our way. British passports obviously still have their advantages in some parts of the world...

"If there's a bustle in your hedgerow" we sang as we trundled down the backroads to our lodgings: The Manor House, Herringswell, no less. England really is speccy. It turns on the charm immediately; little villages, green fields, racing cars on small freeways, mysterious forrest glades, narrow lanes and of course, did we mention the hedgerows? We got lost of course, but finally located our new home for the next month and were both totally blown away. This is a Manor House from god knows how long ago, but you can be sure at least that your great-great grandfather was in shorts, if not a hessian nappy, when it was built. As they say in these parts, "'Nuff Said."

We were met in the parking area by Heather and George who were to show us into the apartment and get us settled. They kindly suggested that we should head off to the nearest village, Tuddenham, if we were after dinner. Heather recommended the Tuddenham Mill, mentioned in the Doomsday book and "quite a bit nicer than pub; which is a bit rough and ready". We decided that getting dressed and sorted for a restaurant was a bit beyond our capabilities and headed straight for the pub, The White Hart, Tuddenham. Heather had clearly misjudged us, we found the pub to be a charming, typically English pub and were welcomed by Paul and his wife for a couple of pints, some good pub grub and a chat. After a short while the local cricket club turned up to host their, April Fool's Day Quiz and we were invited to join in, however we decided on an early night and just as well after sitting in on round one we would have been 0/10!

We had a wonderful night's sleep, although the hot water and heating didn't work. We were up early the next morning and after a bit of organising, had a plumber come and fix the problem. After that, showers all round and a trip into Bury St Edmunds to get our sim cards fixed and to load up on groceries. Thus fortified, we returned home, packed our things away and settled into a quiet toasty evening and did that most banal of all things: sat and watched TV and enjoyed a Sunday roast. After all it was in English, don't you know and we could understand every word!

Monday dawned, another bright sunny day and making the most of it whilst it lasted, we enjoyed a delightful walk down to Herringswell village, explored the church, built in 1300ish and then tramped along a country footpath. Green fields, hedgerows, daffodils and tulips sprouting in groups everywhere. Oh and the pig farms. It's all organic in this neck of the woods and many happy piggies could be seen and heard snuffling in their troughs in open fields, or lying on piles of straw outside their very own quonset huts (Ian was a little disturbed by this, as it reminded him of the accomodation migrants to Australia lived in upon arrival back in the 60's). There were several paddocks along the way and hundreds of pigs. We have resolved to keep the windows closed while we eat our bacon and eggs and felt slightly guilty about having roasted one of their friends on Sunday.

Tuesday was the perfect day for a drive, the weather having turned a bit grey, although it did not rain somewhat surprisingly. We were off to wander in Constable country. Constable being one of Ian's favourite English artists and the counties of Suffolk and Essex, Constable's inspiration. We wandered through country lanes to Flatford Mill. Flatford Mill was a little underwhelming really and we spent a short time there before deciding that we would head on to Lavenham, a medieval village full of colourful, crooked timber and daub houses. The sun had made an appearance by the time we navigated the tiny roads between the fields of butter coloured canola, interspersed with verdant rye grass, all kept in check by the ever present hedges. It really is as pretty as a picture, with hedges coming into leaf, bordered by fluffy white blossoms; one can see why Constable was inspired to paint in such a beautiful landscape.

We strolled around Lavenham, marvelling at how the crooked buildings managed to stand up, let alone be renovated into pubs, posh restaurants and upmarket BnB's. It is a delightful little village, however we didn't envy the lot of the villagers charged with the upkeep. We finished off our little tour with a visit to the local bakery, where we indulged ourselves in apple turnovers and strawberry rhubarb shortcake. These little piggies then jumped into the car and drove off home to Herringswell, where a delightful New Zealand Sav Blanc brought the day to a close.

Posted by Seantiel 11:23 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

The last days of L'Italia

Lazing in Tuscany

sunny 25 °C
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After our return from Venice it was time to turn our thoughts to moving on and spend a few days planning for our move to the UK and beyond. Following the frantic travel of our first 2 months away, it has been a pleasure to have a "home" and not have to worry about packing the cases, or where our next bed might be, let alone the challenge of another language.

The weather really turned it on for our last few days in Lucignano, bright azure skies, warm sunny days and it was a bit of a surprise to find daylight savings had arrived; leading to longer evenings spent gazing over the Tuscan hills and valleys from our favourite bars (there are 2 to choose from) and simply enjoying the slow village life. We have spent our days just meandering around the town and it's surrounds, soaking up the increasing warmth of spring, feasting on the local fare and sipping the last of our wines of the region.

We have found this little village charming and after a few weeks seem to be fitting into the local mould, accepting the closure of everything but the bar during siesta, making an appearance for apperitivo (although we do seem to be the keenest couple in town for this time of day!) and of course calling into Snoopy's gelateria on our way to sit in the gardens. We are well acquainted with Gilberto, the butcher, feel like part of the family in the supermarket; even if we are a little embarrassed about the daily purchase of wine. And Cath awaits market day, Thursday, like a kid waiting for Christmas, desperate to find out what has come into season this week. One of the many delights for Cath has been experiencing the Italian food culture and cooking what is in season. Verdant locally grown asparagus, artichokes and spinach, tomatoes, fragrant cheeses, salamis and crunchy bread and the royalty of course, hand made pasta. And we have both become quite the connoisseurs of bistecchia Chianina. Ian, meanwhile, has charmed a couple of the elder gentleman, who seem to have all day to sit outside the tabbachi and as evening approaches, move to the outer walls for a chat, with his resonant "Bongiorno" or "Buonasera". They sing out to him as we pass and whilst we and they do not understand every word it is wonderful to share a laugh and what we are sure is a joke.

It has been a delight to watch the trees and vines move through spring, slowly unveiling their blossom, followed by the bright greens of new leaves and shoots, causing us both to often wonder aloud "Next time we will come a couple of weeks later to see the plants in full dress" and to sneak a look at the real estate agents on our way past. What if we could have a little Tuscan house, we dream?

Tuscany and our little part of it has worked it's way under our skin and as many generations before us have been, we are enchanted and a little sad to be leaving. But the world beckons and with some renewed vigour we are ready for the next chapter in the year of living dangerously. So it is that we set off for Pisa, to see if we can straighten their tower, catch a plane and head for Herringswell and the Manor house.

Pisa! We could not have been more surprised! We arrived at what appeared to be a nondescript railway station, alighted and headed out toward the airport side exit, as it was where our accomodation lay. After wandering through some pretty average streets, we found our small hotel, dropped off our belongings and walked to the airport, which was only about 1/2 a km away. From there, a bus took us into town and as the journey slowly unfolded we were delighted to see the older side of the town emerging. We alighted at the leaning tower stop and there it was; the tower, the baptistry and cathedral, surrounded by verdant lawns, where students lay enjoying the early spring sunshine. It was so uplifting after three months travel to finally see a wide expanse of lawn. Pathetic I know, but it really did bring back to us the many wide green lawns of our homeland and what a pleasure to walk on.

We took the obligatory photos amongst the Oohing and Aahing crowds before making or way out the back and into the old town, where the real delights were. One is drawn into Pisa. The winding streets slowly reveal it's history, however there is a delightful vitality, brought about in no small part by the students chatting and smoking in groups. It seems there are a couple of universities there and as a result there is a large cafe culture that reveals itself as you wander from one street to the next. We took our time and were rewarded with some truly beautiful buildings, archways, piazzas and finally the Arno river which carves a wide expanse through the middle of the city. Of course, we held to our truism: two streets back from the tourist area was where we found a quaint little restaurant and enjoyed a local meal, generous and reasonably priced, before strolling through the evening crowds and eventually catching a late bus home.

We were up early and in the airport, chafing once more to be on the way. To be truthful, whilst we have absolutely adored Italy and the rest of Europe, we were so looking forward to England and the opportunity to once again be able to walk through the streets and understand everything.

Ciao Italia, Grazie

Posted by Seantiel 09:08 Archived in Italy Tagged tuscany Comments (1)

Venice

In search of the far canal

sunny 17 °C
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I mean, really, you would think after traversing the desert wastes of Iran, to see the tomb of Cyrus the Great; gazing at the golden horn in Istanbul, or imagining the roar, as you stare at the Colosseum, you would be a little jaded when viewing new places. Not so! Venice has added a completely new dimension to our experience. Whether it's a trick of the light; the combination of water, gorgeous buildings and statuary, or the riotous colour combinations, Venice has blown our minds! There is an absolutely unbelievable quality to this city. The gondolas surfing the waves amid brightly coloured tethering poles, the sunlight glinting off a thousand coursing rivulets, the sea spray adding a soft viscous glow to the whole picture, whilst the crowds throng this way and that. And the the air of decay and acceptance from the buildings that have served silent witness to the passing centuries. All this and we have barely entered St Mark's square.

Sorry to go a bit Venizzia Sciocco, but this city has captured our hearts. We arrived late Thursday afternoon, got lost three minutes after taking directions to our apartment and took a while to reorient. Second time around we got there and were delighted to find a spacious bedroom, separate lounge, kitchen, bathroom and entryway on the first floor, with a lovely aspect over a bar. We are a part of the coterie and we've only just arrived!

After ditching our gear, we headed out, electing to go native, no map, well maybe we cheated a little, but mostly just followed our noses and the signs to Rialto and San Marco piazza. Through myriad alleyways, across wonderful little stepped stone bridges, around corners surprising us with unexpected options, we got lost; found new canals, new alleyways and all of this interspersed with cafes, pretty little shops, bars and an incredible array of masque galleries that recalled the carnivales, balls and galas that formed the mad, luxurious events of the past 500 years. Venice is at once decadent, mysterious and exciting. It doesn't matter that most of the buildings have an air of faded glory. The history is just so marvellous that it transcends its age and seems to have a tangible vitality.

We finally arrived in St Marks square where, like Spinal Tap, everything was ratcheted up to eleven. The cathedral is absolutely beautiful, as is the Doges Palace, but the duelling quartets across the square were divine, reminding us that this was not some dusty, tacky tourist attraction. On the one side was a dais holding a violin, double bass, accordian and a clarinet, supported by a piano, whilst on the opposite side was a similar affair! And bear in mind these two acts weren't the entertainment; they were merely there for the amusement of the patrons of the opposing restaurants that surrounded and supported them.

As one then strolled around the square and finally out toward the sea, the vista opens up and combines once again to create an amazing view: the sea, the island backdrop, the gondolas, like horses champing at the bit, riding nervously up and down on the waves, straining at their pylons. The gondoliers in their gaily striped outfits straining against the sea as they steer their charges into shore; the crowds of tourists becoming a part of the picture: here a bride decked out in red organza posing for the photographer, there a mini skirted, bright blue dreadlocked photographer taking photos of her no less gaudily dressed subjects and of course the constant wave of sightseers clamouring for space to grab their own slice.

After taking our snaps of the Bridge of Sighs, altogether now: aaaaah, we exited stage left down a tiny alleyway, took a couple of turns and popped out next to a couple of great bars serving delightful drinks and cicchetti, yummy little delights which are often given away as accompaniments to the drinks for customers. We enjoyed a couple of drinks before deciding we better get on home for dinner. You can imagine our dismay when we realised we had managed to stroll in completely the wrong direction from home. It was almost a 3km slog back, but who could complain? We ended the evening with a home cooked pasta, courtesy of the cheese and kisses and some delightful Pinot Grigio. Almost 15 kilometres, not bad for an afternoon's work!

Viva Venice! We say, and this is only day one.... Bring it on!

It was a late night, what with the hubbub from downstairs. Our apartment is situated above a corner where three different bars intersect and the patrons were all attempting to outdo each other. It didn't matter though, we snoozed off fairly quickly, thanks to the aforementioned wine. Next morning we headed off through the Jewish Ghetto, which is apparently the original after which all others are named and strolled on until finally emerging at the Fondamente Nove , the Vaporetto station for Burano. We had purchased 24 hr tickets on the internet the night before, as it worked out much cheaper than paying €7:50 per trip or 75 mins (bearing in mind that we intended to use them for several more trips). Apparently locals pay only €1:50 per trip or 75 mins. It is a pleasant sail out past the Cemetrie, which is an entire island given over to the dead, then on past a couple of other islands until arriving at the gaily decorated Burano. The locals must have put their heads together years ago to think of a distinctive way to make their island stand out and decided to paint every house a different colour. It is a riotous blend of lemons, blues, oranges, aquas, purples and so on, simply gorgeous to behold. Of course there are also canals everywhere, so the reflections only served to heighten the impression. After walking for some time, we finally settled on a pleasant little cafe for lunch and a bottle of rosé, before finally boarding the ferry back to Venice.

Once back, who could resist a Vaporetto ride down the grand canal? Water taxis buzzed back and forth around us, gondolas took their leisurely time to paddle past and a multitude of other vessels cruised about. Of course the many mansions and public buildings which lined the canal all served to remind us that this was indeed a powerful and noble city, even if accepting it was more in the nature of a faded glory. Under the Rialto and finally back to our nearest stop, from where we wended our way back to our apartment. After dinner we decided to find out what all the noise was about and visited a couple of bars, seeing a lively little jazz combo and enjoying martinis and wine. A very pleasant day's work complete, we retired to bed around midnight.

Our final day consisted of another vaporetto ride to St Mark's square and a pleasant stroll about, although to be fair, the crowds were thicker than flies on a turd, so we didn't dally too long. After a stroll around the perimeter admiring the numerous ancient shops and cafes, including Caffe Florian, the oldest coffee house in the world, which has been serving coffee since 1729, we caught our final vaporetto all the way down the grand canal once more to the railway station, from where we took our leave. But not before sampling some local gelato, yummy of course!

Posted by Seantiel 05:08 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Roma

But of course she looks old.

semi-overcast 16 °C
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Friday morning we were up at sparrow fart. A series of clever moves planned by Cath found us waiting for the bus at 7:00am. From there it was a quick trip to Arezzo and then all aboard the train to Rome. The main station in Rome, Teminali, is really quite large and can be daunting to the first time visitor. Although we were initially overwhelmed, it actually turned out to be quite easy to negotiate. We boarded a metro train for our suburb, Trastevere and then a short tram ride dropped us off almost at our street, a gorgeous cobbled road leading to a piazza with the mandatory church overlooking it. The street was lined with small cafes, bars and restaurants and whilst we waited for our Airbnb host to arrive we had a light lunch and a couple of very nice vino bianco directly across the street from our apartment. We had already been madly pointing out various landmarks to each other, whilst on the train and after depositing our belongings at our apartment, we headed off to explore nearby, and not so nearby landmarks.

As we were situated on the west side of the river, the Arno, was our first port of call. Crossing that, we were immediately immersed in ancient roman ruins and artefacts. Rome is at once very ancient and not so, as there are numerous buildings covering the various epochs. However the predominant eras seem to be either Ancient Rome or 16th - 18th century. An accumulation of dirt and dust pervades all, but rather than creating a feeling of forlorn detritus, it gives one the sense of being in the company of an old lady. There is a gentility and acceptance about her that belies the steely determination to succeed that has given it the title of the eternal city. As for us two spring chickens, we were positively delighted as one discovery led us on to another, until without realising it we had walked all the way into the city centre. The Forum rose impressively before us, only to be superceded by the glorious Colosseum, which we had tickets to see the next day. No matter, we were kids in a lolly shop and nothing could stop us. After these two wonderful spectacles, we headed off to see the Pantheon, which we had somehow missed. We must confess that we were sidetracked by coming across an Irish Pub and it being St Patrick's Day, we felt it our duty to pop in for a quick pint of Guinness. The national monument; Altare della Patria is also an epic piece of work, which took our breath away.

We looked at each other, drew a deep breath and agreed that we just had to see the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain before heading home. As it turns out, collecting those two was a great deal more strenuous than we had foreseen. False paths, slow google maps directions and the bane of all tourists - other tourists and Romans out enjoying the traditional Passieggata, conspired to foil our plans. Nevertheless we eventually found ourselves in front of the Trevi Fountain, along with 2000 other tourists. It is a marvellous construction, however the amassed throng made it rather difficult to appreciate. And bear in mind, we are not here in the tourist season. We can only imagine what it must be like then and we have no intention of joining in the undoubted chaos! After the fountain we struggled on, with increasingly aching feet and legs, until at last we arrived at the Spanish Steps. We were fortunate, insofar as there weren't too many interlopers, perhaps no more than a couple of hundred, such that we were able to sit and reflect for a while. How odd that the Spanish Steps were built as the result of a competition, financed by a bequest from a french diplomat, to connect the Bourbon Spanish embassy and the Trinita dei Monti, under the patronage of the Bourbon kings of France?

We finally turned for home via the Metro, having walked over 17 kilometres. No wonder we felt weary!

We awoke Saturday morning with plans of getting away early and beating the crowds to the Colosseum but were somewhat slowed down by a stop at the cafe on the corner for coffee and croissants filled with pistachio butter, as recommended by our host. We had found a new delight and vowed to return the following morning for a repeat performance, Cath already considering how she is to source such a product on the road and at home. Cath had promised Ian that we would not be walking close to 17km, after our previous performance and with the aid of the trusty public transport app we were on the tram on our way to spend a day in Ancient Rome. Pre-purchasing tickets turned out to have been a very sensible idea and before long we were inside the Colosseum, awed by the size of it and a bit saddened by the awareness of the vicious and violent history held here. Our mood was lightened by frequent recitations from Monty Python's Life of Brian and we moved on to discover the Forum, Cath a little disappointed not to have been offered some otters noses!

It seems we were not quite early enough to have beaten the hordes lined up to go into the Forum and Palatine Hill, the line snaked down the hill and and around the corner and as everyone appeared to also have pre purchased tickets we decided a quick visit to the Pantheon would do before lunch and then off to the Sistine Chapel for the afternoon. It turned out that the Pantheon was a bit tricky to find and before long we had covered more miles than planned and Ian's feet and Cath's hip were suffering from overuse again. Finally we staggered down the tiny winding alleys to arrive at the magnificence of the Pantheon. A bit of a rest and check of the map, saw us heading back to Trastevere for lunch and then on for the afternoon's activities. Now it seemed that this was a sensible solution but we got lost. The Romans may have built long straight roads leading to Rome but once they got there they built a mishmash of streets that are almost impossible to navigate, so it was that we walked further than planned and finally with a very unhappy set of feet and legs we were back to the Cantina Ripa for lunch and wine.

We left our run a little late for the booked 3 o'clock session at the Vatican Museums and were a bit anxious that we would miss out altogether, our anxiety only heightened when the change of trams at Valle Guillia led us to a tram that must have been at least 100 years old. We rattled and bumped up the hill, back across the river and finally to the Vatican walls, all the while planning our excuses for being late. It turned out we need not have bothered with excuses, as we entered the ticketing area, Cath approached the desk, showed the email confirmation of pre purchased tickets and started making our excuses when with a rather Gallic shrug the ticket clerk said, "It is no matter", handed over the tickets and off we went.

Now it has to be said that neither of us are fond of religious art, seeming as it is almost entirely populated with long suffering wretches, with miserable countenances, but the colour and exquisite detail of the artworks adorning the entrance to the Vatican Museum are undeniable. It was therefore quite disturbing to be treated to what can only be described as the Vatican's version of running with the bulls at Pamplona. The starter's gun goes off at the entrance to a long hallway, segmented by glass doorways into small galleria and away we go! Ten wide by a hundred deep, the tourists have to jostle, elbow and generally jockey for position, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for laggards goggling and taking selfies, clearly oblivious to the obstacle they create. Months of travelling however, prepared us and in no time we were weaving in and out, sidestepping, feinting left and going right, until Ian attempting to perform a blind turn, bounced off a rather large heifer, eliciting a disapproving groan from Cath. We did manage at last to get into some clear space ahead of the bulk of the herd and were then able to enjoy the spectacle at a more leisurely pace. Our intention though, was to see the Sistine Chapel and so we trotted on relatively quickly, noting various pained expressions on both the artworks and visitors faces....

At last we were finally ushered into the Sistine Chapel and sure enough it was very impressive. That is, to see 500 people crammed into a small room, being harangued by a few guards to keep quiet, one assumes so as not to wake up the pope. The ceiling is admittedly very beautiful; "Michelangelo should be congratulated for doing all that wonderful work on his back" said Cath. Ian was thinking of other professions that work from a similar perspective... We weren't given a great deal of time to appreciate the wonderful work though, as we had to make way for the next flood of tourists and so soon found ourselves on the move and in no time spat out the other end. It was our intention to go on to see St. Peter's basilica next, however sadly that meant leaving the Vatican and walking a long distance around the outer walls to the other side before re-entering again. It was too much though and we decided to retire for the day with over 15 kilometres walking completed.

We had by this time perfected the utilisation of the tram system and so were able to get back to our apartment with only one change of tram. We felt, quite justly, that we had earned a treat and purchased a delightful bottle of red which we imbibed back at the apartment whilst we talked over the day's events and our planned dinner at the trattoria on the corner. Suitably fortified, we essayed forth once again and sat down to what was to turn out one of the best meals of our trip, all the owners choice, menu a giorni[i]. The trattoria was a real find, clearly Nonna was running the show, with Papa trying to avoid being told off, son and grandson scurrying around to obey orders and finally a wandering maestro with Ian's favourite instrument (NOT), the piano accordion, in tow. Luckily we ha arrived just in time, as before long there was a line of regular customers standing in the piazza waiting for a table. We chose a delightful [i]vino bianco to accompany the first half of the meal and a possibly foolish, but also delightful bottle of vino rosso to accompany the second half. With a very kindly bestowed Limoncello, served with a cuddle for Cath by Nonna, we found ourselves wandering out the door replete, if no longer discreet.

Sunday found us unsurprisingly seedy, but we knew we could overcome our discomfort if we could just get to the Basilica. Unfortunately, although we made it back to the Vatican in time to hear the thunderous applause for the pope, it was past standing room only and they couldn't fit us in. Sadly we had to head off for home disappointed. The train trip back to Arezzo and the subsequent bus journey afforded us a welcome opportunity to snooze, which we happily took, arriving to our Tuscan home Lucignano at around 9:00pm.

Arrivederci Roma...

Posted by Seantiel 05:59 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

La Toscana Part 3

Lazy days and driving in the hills

sunny 18 °C
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Weekends are a pretty quite affair in Lucignano, with the exception of the church bells, although the sun brought a few Italians to visit the town. What a joy it must be to live in the city and drive to a Tuscan village for the day. It appears that once Spring has decided that it has arrived, everyday is a sunny day with a light breeze, how can one be busy on days like that? We spent our weekend wandering in and around the town, enjoying the sun, the magnificent views and soaking up a little local history. We visited the church of San Francesco, where we were greeted by a charming gentleman who proceeded to give us a guided tour of the whole church, it's art works, frescoes and adjoining cloisters. Unfortunately he spoke less English than we do Italian and Cath managed to get about every third word or so; we did however pick up that the church was first built in 1248, the frescoes show the stories of St Francis' life and those with him: poor St Agatha had her boobs removed and became a martyr; St Agnes had her eyes removed and became a martyr; when the nuns got pregnant they were sent away. Oh, and that the church has an underground passage that runs from the altar to lower in the village where at times churchgoers could hide and still attend mass. After all that it was a quick visit to the butcher for some supplies before heading home to cook up lunch and salve our somewhat assaulted imaginations with some wine. We had planned to head out for another Sunday night football match but decided that the wine at home was just as good and collapsed on the couch rather earlier than expected.

We decided that it was time to brave the Italian road system and hired a car for a couple of days to explore the region a bit more. The public transport is ok but does limit visiting smaller towns. So after picking up the car in Arezzo we were off and driving, look left drive right became the mantra and we soon learnt that speed limits are really a suggestion, even the oldies drive like they have just entered the F1. This is of course when a farmer is not taking his tractor for a test drive or revving his Piaggio for one more kilometre up that hill!

Our first stop was the medieval town of Cortona, scene of the film, Under a Tuscan sun. It had been recommended to Cath at the hairdresser and it did not disappoint. It is again a hilltop town but built in a square, rather than round design. The town is supposedly car free, although it again seems that is only for those who are not in the know, and we spent a good hour climbing never ending streets to the very top. Ian was somewhat cranky when we got to the top and realised that you could just drive around the back of the hill to the Cathedral of St Margherita. She must have been one special lady because the view that her crew have across both Tuscany and Umbria is nothing short of stunning. A quick visit into the church before we headed up the last portion of the ascent to visit the castle built by some Medici family member, only to find it closed. A sneaky look around the back and we found a more amazing view and what appeared to Etruscan ruins. We were however a bit doubtful about the ruins as they had inscriptions and as we had previously found out, there is very little trace of the Etruscan alphabet and we are pretty sure that they would not be sitting out the back of a castle in Cortona. A bit of wandering looking for lunch before we decided that we would head off to the lake we had spied from the top of the town to get lunch.

We had read that Lake Tresimeno is one of the jewels of Umbria and from the top of Cortona we would have agreed. On closer inspection it is a bit drab and frankly the water does not look very inviting, this of course may be because it is not summer yet and we can imagine that during the season people flock to the shores for water sports of all kinds. As always atop the hill is a castle and walled town, Castiglione del Lago where we spent a very nice afternoon perusing the shops, tasting the local cheese and salami, purchasing a couple of bottles of Umbrian wine (including one simply based on the name Corio) and Cath introduced Ian to the delights of Aperol spritz.

Late in the afternoon we headed off to Montepulciano which promised to be one of the prettiest towns in Tuscany but on arriving there we just could not face the third hill climb in a day and decided that a quick snap shot of the view from the car park would be enough. The drive back to Lucignano was about 30 km but due to the winding roads took a good hour or more, in which time the sun sunk toward the hilltops, the changing light and colour is obviously what has drawn artists and film makers to the region for many years and is exquisite to see. We arrived home feeling very lucky to have had such a lovely drive and ready for a couple of wines to soothe our sore legs, mountain goats we are not.

Day two of driving saw us heading for the Chianti region, for obvious reasons and the drive did not disappoint. Cath had planned a round trip to Greve in Chianti, so that we would not end up seeing the same views twice, very thoughtful! Cath got to enjoy some of the most breathtaking views as we sped up hills, down dales and around corners, oh so many corners and Ian was feeling confident enough to "drive like an Italian" which translated means faster around the corners than on the straight stretches. We had thought that the Villas were impressive in what we refer to as our local part of the region, but they have nothing on Chianti, they are castles not Villas and it didn't take Cath long to choose her favourite and insist that Ian stop for a photo. We decided that you know you are in Chianti when there are more grapevines than olive trees and there are some seriously large vineyards here. As far as the eye can see, rows of vines trail up and down the hills. At one point Cath had thought that "doing a vintage" might be ok and then it dawned on her that you have to go up as well as down the rows of vines and the idea was quickly scotched. It turns out the Greve is not really much of a town at all- thanks Trip Advisor, you loser! We should have stopped at the previous town, Panzano. We bought some bread to go with the picnic that Cath had packed and were off in search of a picnic spot. After toiling up yet another hill, following the signs to a panoramic terrace, we realised we had missed it a kilometre or two earlier and rolled back down the hill (almost). Before we knew it we were back in the Val di Chiana (did anyone mention racing car driver?). The give away was the enormous white cows, which we had not seen before but now understood as the source of such large steaksAfter that we headed home to have our picnic.

After a couple of relaxing days in Lucignano, we were ready for more adventures. After all as they say in The Life of Brian, we were off on Friday to Wome you know!

Posted by Seantiel 05:40 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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