Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Several steps closer to heaven

written 31st March

We had the best day on sunday.

After a night just outside a nearby mountain village, e parked at the top of the cliff road, overlooking Riomaggiore and set off down the hill in the sunshine. 

The village was picture perfect, tumbling down the cliffside and painted in the pastel colours of fairy cakes and all things sweet and delicious.  A quick coffee and then we were off in search of a cliff path - unfortunately along with half the country but you can't have everything on a sunny sunday morning.

The Cinqueterre National park is so named for its 5 small villages, spread nine kms apart and which cling to the coast line and which were apparently only connected to the outside world recently (although I can't find a definition of recent) by means of the rail and roads which exist today, with all previous contact being by mule track.  The real world has not been slow to find them - hundreds of people, gelaterias and tat shops attest to this! - but the famous cliff path is still pretty darn stunning.

The first section, from Riomaggiore to Manarola is an easy (and therefore crowded), wheelchair friendly, 1km stretch, hugging the lower cliff. 

It is apparently also known as the Via delle Amore (Road of Love) and apparently the thing to do is fix a padlock with your names on it somewhere along the path and you will stay together for ever, or get the man or your dreams or whatever. 

Unfortunately we didn't know this in advance and the only padlock we have is kinda instrumental in the security of our bike rack (although to be honest, it is such a pain to get off that I don't think anyone would but you never know) so we were padlock-less and our marriage is clearly therefore doomed.  oh well   ;)

It was still a pleasant walk,

up until the ugliness of the station anyway, and we decided to head straight on through Manarola (typical streets of pastel houses leading down to small harbour) and on the next section of path to Corniglia.

Less pretty, less wheelchair friendly, but still just as crowded, the next section is just as flat and again fairly near sea level so the 1km or so was quite easy, until we got again to the station where we found that, as the only village not to have its own harbour, Corniglia is actually perched - 350 steps up (but only 15 minutes) according to the reassuring sign at the bottom! 

But that is nothing to Dome of Basilica climbing van dwellers so off we set and were soon surveying the marvellous view from the top (having conquered 380 steps according to the triumphant sign at the top...)  (BTW, there is a free bus if you want to wait for it, but who can be bothered with that!)

Typical perched streets this time, and pizza!  which was delicious as we ate it, on the belevedere overlooking the perfect azure sea on a warm sunny bench.  Three villages down, two to go!

The path becomes significantly more interesting after Corniglia. 

The Rough Guide had advised to be sure to walk from east to west (which we were doing) as it was slightly easier and at least had the sun behind you, and also to be properly prepared for all conditions; water, sun hats, rain mac, hicking boots etc etc  silly hat and an orange or two turned out to be just fine though.

The 4kms between Corniglia and Vernazza winds its way up and down near the top of the cliff.  A proper mule track - although there are bits where I think your average mule would take some considerable persuading, well known for their general amenableness are mules... -  at times along olive groved terraces, at other through scrubby woodland and up and down rough cut stone steps.  Just perfect. 

Unsurprisingly this section is also much much less busy, and all the nicer for it is the dappled shade of the trees, with the sea stretching out to infinity beyond.  Bliss.

We stopped for an orange on a sundrenched rock and there we met Bruce and Sheila (don't actually know their real names, were told them but have forgotten, but they were aussi so bound to be called Bruce and Sheila right?), who are inter-railing round europe on a three month sabbatical.  They too have been to England (London and Bath), Spain, France (we all agreed Eze was just heaven on earth) and are now making their way down through Italy by way or Florence and Rome.  So we had lots to chat about as we continued on, arriving in Vernazza just, as it seemed, 4 trainloads of people did!

A word about the trains.  If you ever go - and again, I think you should! - the five villages are connected by train (which is part of the main line which runs from Genova to La Spezia).  If you just want to see the villages without the walk, you can travel between them by train.  To to use the paths you have to buy a national park day pass.  You can also buy a national park pass with unlimited train travel so you can hop on and off trains.  Don't both.  Well, I wouldn't.  Really, walk, its not that far.  And the coast view is the thing.  Despite what the guidebooks may say, the trains go through long tunnels in the cliff and whilst yes, you do get views of the sea, it is literally only in the dismally grim concrete stations - at least in England we might dress the station up as a Ye Olde Village Station and put some picket fences up and geraniums in tubs or something - but here they are pretty drab functional places.  my opinion; walk, from one end, then get one train back, a single ticket being much cheaper than the rail bit of the train+paths card...


Despite the crowds piling down the hill, when we got to the harbour it was very pretty and we decided we deserved an icecream - well we have walked a whole 6km by this point!  Will and Sheila finally agreed on a gelateria where the icecream was suitably piled up (as in Florence) and the pistachio was the correct shade of olive green (apparently a good indicator of quality of icecream is the pistachio scale from lurid floresence to dull olive, this one was the colour of those 1960's plastic bathroom suites so deemed to be 'just the thing' and apparently the aussis do know their gelato!).  And it was definately worth the search!  yum yum yum!

Bidding farewell to our walking companions, we set off once more

and were soon high up in the hills over looking the town again on the final 3kms, which was the most challenging yet. 

As the least trodden path, it was at times no wider than me with no fence but again, just beautiful, winding over hills and down dales,

across stone bridges (fortunately no trolls) and over stepping stones.  lovely, lovely, lovely.

We arrived at Monterossa in the late afternoon - perfect timing for a lovely cold beer in a pavement cafe - but sadly failed to find the anchovy salting museum or the virtual aquarium, entrance to which is included in the parks pass.  Not really a day for being indoors but really, a virtual aquarium, that would have been worth it for novelty value alone!

The parks pass also gets you free bus travel in the park, on one of the 'ecologically friendly' buses that run from the coastal villages, up and down the hills to the myriad of tiny villages perched high above.  And also free mountain bike hire up on the higher paths.  Sadly though we didn't have enough time for any of that on sunday, and we had seen in the paper that the weather was supposed to be wet the following day so we hadn't go for the two-day park pass otherwise we might have had some more perched village fun.  but hey ho, pretty smug about our cliff path trekking prowess though!

Sheila had been regretting the fact that they didn't have time to go to the Amalfi coast on their trip, but honestly, lovely though Amalfi is (and I still say it is beautiful) CinqueTerre is even nicer.  You can walk it for a start - so better for people who don't have their own transport - and you can therefore be actually out in the landscape, not just seeing it from the road.  Also, the villages here are much better kept.  Positano was pretty but in a pictoresquely slightly decrepid way.  In common with a lot of our tourist experience here, it seems the attitude it, "well we know you'll come here anyway so why should we go out of our way to make an effort".  The villages in CinqueTerre were just on the right side of 'lived in'.  These are real villages, despite the tourist deluge, there is no disney here, but just a little bit more in the way of care and upkeep.  And its closer to france - a day's drive Nice if you go up and got on with it - and very well worth your time I think it would be :)

Train journey back to Riomaggiore then and a hike back up the hill to the van and we spent the night in a quiet cliff side layby.  Lovely

It didn't, as it turned out, rain on Monday.  It was in fact glorious.  But we usefully spent the day trekking up and down the hill with water and washing before heading on out.  And spent yesterday on a different mountainside in thunder, lightening and hailstones the size of walnuts (really!) whilst Will did spring cleaning and I sewed new seat covers for the back seats - it is not unfair to say that, when kitting the van out, the previous owners did not really pay much attention to durability of the materials chosen - anyone would think they didn't think it should be lived in full itme...

We have also found that our leisure battery is officially dead :( so have spent the night in an aire randomly found in Parma (€10 but it has toilets and showers - such luxury for half the price of a campsite!), where Nik, the cheery owner is going to tell us where we can buy a new battery which is only round the corner - perfect.

The sun is shining, I have 10 daisies to paint and one cushion cover to sew, and then we are off to Bergamo airport to pick up Kathryn and Austin for our Lakes Break in Como.

Buon Giorno indeed!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Steps retraced

written 27th March

It is official, the frozen north has thawed - hurrah!

In another trouser leg of time, the plan had been to head north and eastwards from Gubbio to San Marino, the oldest independent state in Europe, then from Ravenna, along the Via Emilia through Emilia-Romagna taking in the sights and delicacies of the 'bread basket of Italy' in its foodie capitals of Bologna, Moderna and Parma.  But that was before we were snowed out of Cinq-terre and then got as far south as Naples and beyond.  And to be honest, having read the books, it sounded like it would be a procession of Renaissance towns, architecture and worthy paintings - which we've had quite a lot of - and places where we would want to eat out where restaurants are expensive and we have had our once-in-a-lifetime Italian meal for this week. 

So we not doing any of that.

Instead, with a few days in hand before our much anticipated lakes-break, we plotted a course in the vague direction of Liguria and headed back to Tuscany, winding up in Montepulciano - apparently used as one of the locations in the new twilight film, so there you go.

Originally circled in the atlas as being in the 1001 places book, but rejected as being 'off route' on our way south, Montepulciano turned out to be lovely, everything we had hoped Montalcino would be and better. 

It doesn't have the striking profile of San Gimiangno (or the world beating ice cream) or the gritty 'real' feel of Pitigliano,

but it had typical streets,

views over lush green tuscan countryside,

an impressive square

and a fabulous cave of a victuals shop where we were lured in by the genial and guarrulous owner with the promise of free entrance, free tasting and, most importantly, free exit.  which of course was not to be, as after several tastings of olive oil, tomato pesto, balsamic vinegar, wines and several types of cheese, which were apparently all from his farm and which were all delicious, we couldn't leave empty handed.  mmmmmm treats

And, as a result of Will's divining with the thingamy, a little bit of internet which we needed for dull house things.  It is quie funny to watch him slowly pace the streets, with the thingamy (for some reason, when it was bought, I couldn't remember 'ipaq' and the name has somehow stuck) poised like a divining rod, waiting for it to metaphorically twitch.  Still, found some and good news!  we have new tenants for our house.  Hurrah!  don't have to come home just yet... :)

And sunshine this time.  And no snow!

After a lovely morning, we headed on again, through the vibrant green ruffled landscape, passing close enough to San Gimiangno to see its distinctive towers plainly recognisable on the horizon..

We got as far as Pisa and, needing petrol, decided it would be nice to see the place not in the snow.  It was dark by this point but obviously they'll light the thing, I mean it is a massive landmark and tourist attraction, surely they'll light it...

but they don't.  which is odd.  The perspex tat towers you can buy in the square are better lit than it is!

So, back to the van and onwards and northwards, hoping for fine weather in the Cinqterre national park....

Saintly Saints and a Sumptuous Supper

Written 26th March

Breaking news:  we have climbed to the top of the biggest christmas tree in the world... but more on that story later.

So far, the freezing north has been quite pleasant, and sunny!  bodes well for fantastic coastlines and lakes breaks but shhh, let's not jinx it.

An easy drive through the undulating Umbrian countryside -

more rugged and craggy than Tuscany but just as strewn with perched villages - a flakey satnav, some inattention and a missed turning l

ed us into Assisi the back way and coincidently a free parking spot, just minutes from the town, that we would never have found otherwise - excellent.

Assisi is obviously renowned for St Francis, its most (and only!) famous son.  Born the son of a wealthy Perugian cloth merchant and his french wife, he was originally named Giovanni but at some point his name was changed to Francesco to honour his french antecendents.  He was apparently a bit of a lad, and misspent a lot of his youth in drinking and other foolish things before a spell in jail led to some time contemplating in a cave and, after a couple of visions from God, the decision to cast off material things and devote his life in service of God and tending the sick, to the point where he took a lot of his father's cloth and sold it to give the money to the poor - which his father was not very happy about, I mean it is one thing to cast of your own belongings, quite another to cast off someone else's! - and when he was challenged, even went so far as to cast the clothes he was wearing off, in the middle of the Assisi town square to prove he was serious.  And so he carried on, and other blokes joined him, and then a girl from the village called Clare, who subsequently founded a female wing called the Poor Clares (and who is, incidentally and rather bizarrely, the patron saint of television). 

Eventually there were so many of them that he went to the Pope for permission to start a proper Order.  At first the Pope wasn't sure - all his advisors cerainly didn't believe that people would genuinely live in this much abject poverty by choice! - but he had a dream in which he saw the whole Catholic church propped up by Francis so he gave them the go ahead. 

And he did good works ad preached to birds

and recieved the stigmata whilst up on a mountain and eventually died and was made a saint.  The End.  Or not.  This is where the cartoon book in the gift shop stops, the frescos on the wall in the church show him continuing to appear to people and do miracles for at least 6 out of 28 pictures - who's to say

The building that is the Cathedral and Monkery of St Francis is built on the Hill of Paradise but was only started after his beatification, two years after his death - when Francis was alive, the place was called the Hill of Hell and was the site of the town gallows -

and you do have to wonder what a monk who had given up everything and decided upon an simple life, free of the trappings of material wealth would have made of the massive edifice which comprises of not one but two churches, built one on top of the other. 

You have to wonder even more what he would have made of the monkery gift shop selling all manner of gold-leafed tat and especially, given his core message of abstinence focusing on peace and goodwill to all men, the jolly, fat monk tat and crossbows and knives on sale in the town...

The upper church is tall and vaulted with the frescos of his life around the walls. 

The lower church is low and vaulted and even more fresco'd, including a Last Judgement, looking remarkably like one we have seen elsewhere... 

And beneath all that, is the crypt where St Francis is actually buried, which is vaulted and cellar-like but some how just a bit disney-like - in fact we both thought it reminded us of a cellar restaurant in Budapest that we went to a few years ago - don't know quite why, might have been the lighting, might have been the air-con - it wasn't the food or wine! - don't know, just a bit too perfect.

The audio-guide, which we got for the frescos of his life mainly, was a bit perfunctory ("Fresco 15 Francis preaches to the birds and they listen to him.  Fresco 16...") but did spend a long time telling us how we might like to visit the gift shop where we were sure to find something to please everyone or could just send a message of peace and goodwill to someone and feel, just a little, like St Francis while we did it.  There were also lots of monks wandering around, thin, beardy, brown-robed ones in serious contemplation and significantly fatter and jollier, black robed ones doing tours - it seems that some are more dedicated to the abstemonious life than others...

On and out and back through the typical streets in the sunshine which, despite the tat, are rather lovely.

Onwards once more then and to Gubbio, another mediaeval Umbrian town, amd one for which we have a restaurant recomendation from an ex-colleague of Will's, another one for the very first suggestions which came in when our trip was announced.  What with the Vatican and a long drive it has been an expensive week but when an Italian recommends a restaurant in Italy and says it is where he and his family go for a once in a lifetime meal, you just have to check it out.

And it was indeed sumptious.  Tucked at the foot of the historic Consule building and below the massive Piazza, the Taverna del Lupo looked small and cosy from the outside but once inside was a bit daunting at first for unaccustomed van-dwellers.  A mediaeval cellar atmosphere (still more real than the crypt of St Francis...) where, as it wasn't very busy being a thursday night, you felt you needed to whisper in reverent, hushed tones, and a wine list that had an A3 page in small print of red Umbrian wines alone before you even thought about considering apperitifs, whites, pinks, Italian wines, international wines or desert wines!  But we soon settled in and dropped forks with loud clanging noises and chose at random a wine called Assisi-something - well you have to choose somehow, if there had been one specifially from Gubbio or anywhere else we had been, we would have had that! - and the food was simply gorgeous.  We sadly didn't feel we could go the whole hog and splurge on the €60 a head special regional truffle tasting menu but we did have our full four courses in true italian style and a very elegant sufficiancy it was too - although we are definately out of practice at drinking a whole bottle of wine between us in one sitting and it has kind of spoilt the table wine we have in the van... :)

This morning we rose bright and shiney early (or something almost exactly like that...) and headed off through the typical streets

to find the cable car up the hill.  It looked particularly exciting, a metal cage just about big enough for two people to stand upright in as it shuddered up the hill, but it was a bit expensive, so for the good of our health and that of our wallets,

we set off on foot feeling very virtuous, and quite soon, very hot.

Gubbio is mainly at the foot of the hill, St Ubaldo's church at the top and it appears that each year, they string a mass of lights across the hillside to resemble a big christmas tree,

with a massive star at the top. 

The view on the way up was glorious and we felt jolly very smug when we got to the top of the little ruined castle at the top, although the view was somewhat taken up by massive star - no danger of any wise men missing this town!

The church was another shock.  Expecting it to be closed up and dark inside bit instead, the heavy doors opened up to a light airy chapel with soft organ music playing.  But this is fairly normal, no the shock was the 900-year old dead saint lying, Snow-White like in a glass coffin on the altar.  no, not expecing that.  actual dessicated person - creepy.

It seems, from the stained glass windows and what we could make out of the inscriptions, that he was a local man, he did some good stuff then he died, then he did some more good stuff - it seems to be the way here.  Still, keeping him hanging about is a bit much.

So, Typical streets in sunshine: tick. Full blown italian meal: tick.  Hill hike: tick.  Saints: tick, tick!

Onwards and upwards once more.