27 June 2008

honeymoon part five: rome

All roads lead here apparently, including ours.

And the roads were good... we stopped at Buonconvento to admire hundreds of old cars from all over the world doing the Mille Miglia Storica...

The Mille Miglia Storica...but the drivers were crazy: navigating through Rome’s chaotic streets to drop the hire car off at the Villa Borghese was tricky to say the least.

Relieved to let a native do the rest of the driving, we took a taxi to our hotel: Pensione Panda. It was in a great little spot on Via della Croce, a buzzing street with loads of restaurants, and the hotel itself was much better than I was expecting for the budget price.

There wasn’t time for much exploring that night, so we went straight for dinner at the restaurant right below our hotel and sat next to a young Liverpudlian couple. Yep, we were definitely back in tourist-ville again.

While we finished our limoncello, down came the rain. Would we ever escape it? We ran out of the restaurant, dodging the umbrella sellers and took shelter in an ice cream shop near the Spanish Steps where we shared a small bottle of vino and people watched for a while. I loved the fact that people of all ages, men and women would come in and get an ice cream with no shame. No grotty kebab shops filled with lager louts here.

Despite the rain, I was getting a good feeling about Rome.

Sunday morning and guess what? It was pissing down. That ruled out the open air Colosseum. So after a cappuccino and croissant at what was to become our faithful breakfast haunt, Pasticceria d’Angelo, we headed for the Vatican shielded from the weather by our Jack-in-a-Packs. It was a fair walk.

Neither of us are religious, but we couldn’t fail to be impressed by the draw that this place had on people and the magnificence of the architecture of St Peter’s Square and the Basilica. The columns surrounding the square were absolute giants, but walking amongst them it could be easy to take their presence for granted.

After a long walk around the perimeter of the walled Vatican City to the museum entrance we found it was closed! Luckily, the sun had now found its way through so we decided to do the Colloseum and Roman Forum.

Using the excellent tip from the Lonely Planet we avoided the long ticket queue at the Colloseum by buying a joint ticket from the Palatine ticket office where the queue was much shorter.

Inside the ColloseumWe really enjoyed the Colloseum, and the Forum, although we found the Forum badly signposted and wasted a lot of time queuing for the Casa di Augustus which was a pretty crap reconstruction of the emperor’s house, without realising that there was a whole other bigger, better area in the other direction. Nevertheless, we had time to appreciate it in the low evening sun and take one last look at it from the vantage point of the back of the Palazzo Senatorio, before descending the steps made for giants - another building that was oversized and breathtaking.

The Roman ForumThe Roman ForumWe were thirsty, and it was a good job, because you’d have to be really thirsty to pay £7 for a pint of beer, but that’s what it cost, and that’s what we paid.

That night we ate in a wine bar on Via della Croce called Enoteca Antica, which I have since discovered is very highly rated amongst visitors and locals alike. I’m not surprised. The main courses were fantastic, the vibe was good, the waiters were so friendly and the antipasti selection was epic..

The following day it was cloudy and we headed back to the Vatican museums, but the queue was horrendous - about 2 hours. We could pay a ridiculous supplement to skip it by doing a tour, but after our Uffizi Gallery experience in Florence we decided it wasn’t worth it. We’d had our fill of Italian art.

Instead we went to the train station and worked out how we would get to Sorrento tomorrow. We also worked out how to use the local buses: avoid the tour bus touts and buy tickets from the nearest newsagent for 1 euro a bargain for once!

Our next stop was the Pantheon, definitely a highlight for us. We just loved the building, the design, the courage, the effort and the high standards of these ancient people who seemed to have a ‘no fear’ approach to construction. How many things that we build now will still be in perfect condition in two thousand years time?

The PantheonPantheon CeilingPantheon FloorThe Trevi fountain didn’t do much for us. It was rammed with tourists there for the sake of it, just like us.

We went back to Via della Croce for the evening, sat at Enoteca Antica and sampled a couple of wines and some of the incredible array of antipasti available. Delish. We ate at Otello alla Concordia and then headed back to Enoteca Antica for more vino. Outside it was heavy rain, thunder and lightning.

We really enjoyed Rome. It’s a really vibrant city that still has plenty to offer even after you’ve seen the main sights. I found the people friendly and the food good. I’ve no doubt that our road will lead here again.

19 June 2008

honeymoon part four: tuscany cont...

We headed west, through Anqua, Massa Marittima and Cura Nuova to the coast and the seaside town of Follonica. Although I could imagine what it would be like in the height of summer, popular with Italians, in May, in the pouring rain at siesta time it was dead. And you know what? It was bliss.

FollonicaWe hunted down an open restaurant for a coffee, and at 1 euro it was the cheapest so far in Italy, and sat for a while, watching the locals watching the telly, and relishing being the only non-Italians in the vicinity, never mind the restaurant.

Where next? North, along the coastal road to wherever it would take us. The road was very straight and the landscape very flat. On our left was the sea (not that we could see it) and on our right were miles and miles of farms: big estates with long drives lined with baobab trees, against a dramatic back drop of mountains and dark grey storm clouds. It was still raining and the landscape looked lush - almost tropical. This was much more interesting, much more real to me than herding round antiquated hill towns. This was a working, living Italy.

It was time for a break, so we stopped in Cecina for an ice-cream, and boy it was the best chocolate ice cream of the whole trip (more on Italian ice cream and food in general in a separate post). It almost made up for the fact that outside our little hire car, it was still absolutely chucking it down.

Ice cream in CecinaBack east now, back on winding hilly roads, and through some pretty towns at which we would have undoubtedly stopped for a wander if we wouldn’t have got soaked through within seconds.

Another calm and silent evening at the villa was spent reading our novels, and we were only just beginning to feel completely relaxed: disconnected from the outside world, no internet, no phone, no TV, just books and our imagination. I was totally absorbed by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which couldn’t have felt more appropriate. It was lovely.

Wednesday. My heart sank as I peered out on yet another cloudy Tuscan day, the dull grey sky draining the landscape of its beauty. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! But just as we were ready to head out in the car again, the sun started to look like it might make it through the clouds so we decided to take a punt on a day at the villa. Hopeful, we walked up to the village for barbeque meats, then read our books, and at about 4pm the sun finally made it through. We wasted no time in getting sat round the pool, but within 30 minutes the dark grey storm clouds that had been looming over the hills began to rumble and down came the rain. So our lamb did not make the barbecue, we cooked it on the grill indoors instead, got very very drunk and went to bed hoping that the storm would clear the air for the morning.

Thunder looming over the poolNo such luck. Thursday was just as cold and cloudy as the day before and to make matters worse I was hung-over. I resolved to sulk and lie in bed for as long as possible, only rising at 1pm when a chink of sunlight drew me to the window. Yes, it was sun! So we sat outside for an hour willing the intermittent sun to hold its ground, then we moved to the pool and soaked up enough heat to warrant a swim! Brilliant! But that was it – 45 minutes later and the rain started to fall.

So that night we went to La Pergola for dinner hoping that tomorrow, our last day, we might get a chance to barbecue our beautiful t-bone steaks and Tuscan sausages.

The path up to the village and down to the villaFriday. No sun. In fact mid-afternoon it started raining again. Gutted.

Then, 5pm, just for us, a wonderful thing happened: the sun came out. So, we started the fire, got the barbie going, rustled up some salads, prepared the meat and let it sizzle, poured the wine and enjoyed a wonderful evening. It wasn’t hot by any means, but it wasn’t raining and we were glad for this small miracle.

Cooking in my very own Tuscan kitchenThe villaBeautiful in the evening sun

17 June 2008

honeymoon part three: tuscany

Dom did a superb job with the left handed driving, on the wrong side of the road, while I navigated us out of Florence and before long we were on the S222 and marvelling at the beautiful classic Tuscan countryside of the Chianti region.

Stopping to admire the view on the way to RadicondoliWe reached Radicóndoli at about 2pm, a small village on top of a reasonably high hill, with magnificent panoramic views. We drove through the narrow main street and out the other end down a steep rocky country track to our home for the week РVilla Virgilius.

The house-proud owners greeted us in Italian and proceeded to show us round the house, in Italian. I nodded and pretended I understood. Tour over, Mr Virgilio headed out on his little tractor to plough the soil around his grape vines and olive grove.

We headed up to the village for supplies. There are three general grocery shops in Radicondoli: the Coop, the Alimentaria Tipico (our favourite, ran by a Penelope Cruz look-a-like), and another one, of which I don’t know the name, (we only ventured in once, ran by a scary hunch-back old man). They are all small and they all sell much the same things, pasta, rice, cleaning products, wine, fresh local veg, fresh bread from the bakers, and cheeses, meats and other anti pasti in the deli.

Back street in RadicondoliI must admit, I was hoping to find that food and wine would be cheaper on the continent – but not in Italy. Even right out in the countryside, where tourists are at a minimum (for now), it was pretty pricey.

We came back laden with cheese, ham, pasta, tomatoes, garlic, onions, etc and I cooked us a nice tomato and pancetta pasta dish for dinner. We sat in the evening sun with a bottle of Mr Virgilio’s wine (pretty damn good), and felt very happy and satisfied with ourselves. We were eagerly awaiting the Virgilios’ departure so we could get in that pool and enjoy a week of sun and relaxation.

First pasta cooked at the villa, Saturday lunchOn Sunday, with the Virgilios still here, we decided to head out on a drive. We went to San Galagano, where there is ruined abbey, but of course, where there’s a religious building, there are tourists – busloads of them. We walked the paths away from the people and as the cloud cover came in and it started to turn chilly, we headed back.

We ate in the village that night at La Pergola – top restaurant of the holiday, good value, with a homely feel and a great host and what has to be one of the best views in the whole of Italy.

Beautiful sunset at La Pergola restaurant, RadicondoliMonday, and Mr & Mrs Virgilio were gone. That was the good news. The bad news was it was cloudy and cold. Staying positive we decided to use the bad weather day for sightseeing and we drove off to Siena.

At first it looked like a ghost town, but once we’d walked up the incredibly steep hill to the centre, it was actually jam packed with hundreds of (mainly American) tourists. There was yet another cathedral, and yet another square, except this time, the square was sort of skew, which was supposed to be the great thing about it. I was impressed for about a second.

Siena's squareWe made the fatal error of eating in the square, which, of course, is the priciest place in these tourist hot spots, and it was made even worse by having to endure a street “entertainer” squirting unknowing passers by with water, tickling them between the legs with paintbrushes etc whilst listening to the high pitched squealing of an American lady who looked like she was wearing the tablecloth and found this lame form of slapstick humour absolutely hilarious.

So we hurriedly ate our lunch in fear of becoming the butt of his jokes if we took our eyes off him for a second, and when his begging bowl came round we made sure we snubbed it in typical haughty English style. Ha!

Done with Siena, it was back to the villa for a home cooked risotto and reading until bed time.

Siena salami shopTuesday. One look behind the curtains told us it was going to be another day of bad weather. So, it was another day of touring. We knew if we headed to San Gimignano we’d be among another million people who were doing the same thing, so in a blatant attempt to avoid other tourists we headed for places that barely get a mention in the guide books. Perhaps that would mean there’d be nothing to see, but at least we’d see nothing in peace.

To be continued…

04 June 2008

honeymoon part two: florence

It was never high on my list of places to go, and therefore, I had low expectations, but I must admit to hoping that Florence would defy those expectations.

We got there by train (let’s not talk about how we missed our train by three hours because I mistook the arrival time on the ticket for the departure time!). We rolled our over-sized cases in the sweltering mid-afternoon sun from the station to the hotel, dodging the dog shit, and trying to ignore the heavy traffic.

We headed out along streets like deep gorges in the shadow of the buildings that line them to find the duomo (cathedral), continuing to avoid the dog shit, and realising that after clean, serene Venice, where cars with their noise and fumes are non-existent, Florence might not be to our liking.

There was the duomo, bright in its reflection of the lowering evening sun, and surrounded by hundreds of tourists. I couldn’t get excited. Churches don’t really do it for me, and after the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, my low appetite for ecclesiastical architecture had already been curbed.

Florence's DuomoSo we walked on towards the River Arno, stopping on the way for a pizza and what was to turn out to be the best wine I tasted in the whole of Italy. It was nothing more than cheap red table wine but that didn’t matter; it was a deep, dark purple, and incredibly fruity.

It wasn’t far to the river and the Ponte Vecchio and luckily for us we hit it right on sunset. The view from the bridge was pretty, I won’t deny it, and we hung around there for a little while, taking pics, but the bridge itself is ordinary.

The Ponte VecchioSunset from Ponte VecchioAs we sat at a bar in the Piazza della Signoria, sipping on a ridiculously priced glass of Ruffino chianti, we asked ourselves, “So we’ve seen Florence, what are we going to do tomorrow?”

The answer, as it turned out, was, “We are going to spend three hours in a queue rolling our eyes at the loud Americans behind us, to get into the Uffizi Gallery, then spend about two hours wandering round it with audio guides, weaving through the crowds and trying to muster up appreciation for painting after painting of Madonna and Child. Then, exhausted from being on our feet for six hours we will refresh ourselves in the Uffizi bar with a £3 bottle of water and a £4 cup of coffee.”

Please excuse the sarcasm, we are not total philistines, and there genuinely were some jaw-dropping works of art in there. Our favourites were the Botticellis: La Primavera and the Birth of Venus, but this may have been because they were two of only a few paintings that weren’t heavily religious. This sort of thing just doesn’t float our boat. The outside world, nature, adventure, atmosphere – yes.

And so to Tuscany.

View from Ponte Vecchio

02 June 2008

honeymoon part one: venice

From the moment we stepped off our water taxi from the airport, onto the landing platform of our hotel, with it's red and white candy cone gondola posts, I knew I was going to like it.

We stayed in the Giorgione Suite of the Ca' Vendramin Di Santa Fosca - with sumptuous red and gold decor and fascinating ceiling frescoes. Both of us slept like logs, exhausted from the wedding, but woke up with the sun streaming through the grand windows, calling us out onto our little stone balcony, beckoning us to feast our eyes on the spectacle that is Venice.

Hotel Ca Vendramin di Santa FoscaIt looked like a film set. I half expected a director to shout 'cut' at any moment, and for all the walls to be carried away by crew. The water in the canal below was a stunning opaque jade, as if it had been treated with colourants to look this way. It was just incredible.

A short walk to the Grand Canal and we hopped on a vaporetto (that's the local bus, by the way), to get our bearings. What a sight! Every building facade along the canal had it's own colour and character, and the water was a highway for boats, some with engines, others with a single oar.

The colourful facades of the Grand CanalPiazza di San Marco was our stop. We followed the crowds through the narrow streets and then out into the vast open space of the square swarming with people and pigeons.

We marvelled at the mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco: the golden ones on the ceiling and the marble ones on the floor, and worked up an appetite for lunch.

Piazza di San MarcoAfter a panini and a pint, we decided to hop back on the vaporetto to the island of Murano. Neither of us were interested in the decorative glass that Murano is famous for, (and we are even less interested for having gone there), but it was a refreshing trip out on the open water, clearing our heads, beginning the process of un-winding.

We soaked up the last of the sun at a table by the Grand Canal, with vino rossi and the meatiest green olives I've ever tasted. And in the evening we ate at a restaurant near the hotel. Do Italians really eat pasta and then a main course? We gave it a go, but it was just too much!

Our gondola rideNavigating the back 'streets' of VeniceDay two. After the obligatory gondola ride, where the sunlight reflects the canals and dapples the crumbling stucco, where the cries of gondoliers echo around corners, and the motorboats of the canale grande seem a million miles away, we changed our mode of transport and set about exploring Venice on foot. Through dark narrow alleys that open out into quiet sun-bleached piazza down to San Marco, then crossing the Grand Canal by traghetti (gondolas for where there's no nearby bridge), to have a wander through the Peggy Guggenheim museum. This late, rich American lady has a collection of modern art housed here, in what used to be her home. We keep an open mind with these things, but must admit that some pieces stretched our mortal imaginations just that bit too far.

Crossing the river by Traghetti, where's there's no bridgePizza and salad in the mid-afternoon sun, and then back on our feet again, weaving through the beautiful back streets of San Polo, rejoining the crowds at the Rialto Bridge.

Our last night already! We maximised the romance with a meal at one of the canal side restaurants - pricey, but delicious. Time to leave this fairy tale city, with fond memories and head off on the next stage of our honeymoon tour of Italy. Ciao Venezia!

Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge