Author Archives: Greta

The Last of the Whales

Whale off Fraser Island

Whale season is drawing to its inevitable close. Since late July the Bay has been jumping with acrobatic humpbacks, a curious Right Whale and her calf, who hung around for a couple of weeks and even did some breaching, and a few Minki whales. As many as twenty-four thousand whales do the annual migration up the East Coast of Australia and it’s estimated a third of them drop into Hervey Bay on the way down south.

But now it’s only the stragglers left. Mums in a hurry to fatten up bubs before going down to the ice, the cold – and the krill – in Antarctica. Sandy and I left the boys at home to potter and took a whale boat for what will be almost the last whale watch trip this season. There weren’t a lot of whales left and mums and bubs are hard to spot. They’re spending most of their time on the bottom, feeding the calf. Whales aren’t built for suckling. The mother expresses her milk from her body, where, being forty percent fat, it floats in the water. The calf scoops up copious quantities – anywhere from fifty to five hundred litres a day, loading itself up with blubber to insulate it against the colder temperatures down south. It triples its body weight – about one tonne to three tonnes – in its first year of life.

Mother and calf

If the boats are lucky, they’ll come across a lively calf living it up around mum. They’ve got lots of energy and can entertain for long periods as they practise whaley stuff like breaching, tail-slapping, pectoral waves and the like. We saw three pods, most of them passive. We saw some vigorous activity (lots of splashing) a fair way away and the skipper headed over there. But, as so often happens, by the time we arrived it was all over and mum was a floating, breathing log, with her baby close to her side. We did get a burst of activity late in the day, with a calf doing laps and throwing itself around but they didn’t come near the boat so the pictures were more like long distance splashing. Still and all, it’s wild creatures doing what wild creatures do, so everything is a privilege.The camera ran out of power and, after tossing up whether it was worth it, I went down to the cabin to find my spare battery. When I got back Sandy, who was wearing polaroid sunglasses, pointed at a spot nearby. “It’s right there.” I pointed the camera – and blow me down, the little bugger popped headfirst up out of the water. It was the shot of the day. Of the one hundred  and fifty or so pictures I took, I’ve kept three or four. Maybe if I’d never seen a whale before, I would have kept more but I’m an old hand at this whale watching caper.

Still, it was a lovely day out on the water, not too hot and not at all rough, although the wind picked up in the late afternoon. And since we were on Freedom III, the food was marvellous.

Here’s a few photos I took in earlier seasons.

This baby humpback holds itself above the surface to look at the boat

Mum is lying on her back, pectorals extended. The calf is crossing her body

 

A mother humpback whale and her calf approach the boat in Platypus Bay

A whale calf rolls over in the warm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island

The rains have arrived

Mangoes everywhere. That’s a small part of one tree

This one wasn’t too bad – sound and fury and 15mm of rain

The drought in Queensland appears to have broken – in our part of the world, anyway. A series of storms have swept in from inland Australia, the warm air mingling with a blast of cooler air coming up from the South, a perfect combination for storms. We were lucky. There was lots of thunder and lightning but no gale force winds, no hail, and no torrential rain.

Which brings me to another observation: Our two fairly large mango trees are covered in fruit, despite near drought conditions all through Winter and into Spring. You know what? I think trees are smarter than us when it comes to weather. The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting a dry Summer (because of El Nino). I reckon the mango trees are predicting good summer rains.

We shall see.

On the photography front, one of the big hassles of being a photographer on holiday is having to cart around lenses and the like. I did it for a few years, but changing lenses is cumbersome and frankly rarely happened. As I get older, I’m finding it harder and harder to cart around tripods, heavy lenses and so on. That’s okay for younger, fitter wildlife photographer types but I’ve slowed down of late. I don’t even get down to the beach much.

So… I’ve rationalized the camera situation and down-sized a bit.

I still have a Canon 70D and two smaller, lighter lenses – but I’ve sold a few items and bought a Nikon (shock-horror) Coolpix P1000. The camera is in the ‘compact’ range but it’s actually a hefty piece of kit rivalling the weight of a Canon 5D. Its claim to fame is an incredible zoom lens which will cover 24-3000mm. No, that’s not a typo. Three thousand. It means I can take the device on holidays and be able to take a landscape, then zoom in on a bird. Perfect for my needs. No, it’s not a ‘professional’ level lens and it has some short comings, but it’ll do for a hack like me.

I’ve started playing around, I have a lot to learn, but here are a few photos.

The Pets are back in space

This week I’d like to offer something completely different! You all know I write books, don’t you? I didn’t write this one. But the authors are supporting a great cause and the least I can do is urge you to rush off and preorder the latest Pets in Space (it’s out next week).

You’ll find an anthology of terrific SF romance stories starring animal critters.

Pets In Space 3: Embrace The Passion

Release date: October 9, 2018 (On Pre-Order until then)

Anthology Blurb:

Pets in Space™ is back! Join us as we unveil eleven original, never-before-published action-filled romances that will heat your blood and warm your heart! New York Times, USA Today and Award-winning authors S.E. Smith, Anna Hackett, Ruby Lionsdrake, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Carol Van Natta, Tiffany Roberts, Alexis Glynn Latner, E D Walker, JC Hay, and Kyndra Hatch combine their love for Science Fiction Romance and pets to bring readers sexy, action-packed romances while helping our favorite charity. Proud supporters of Hero-Dogs.org, Pets in Space™ authors have donated over $4,400 in the past two years to help place specially trained dogs with veterans. Open your hearts and grab your limited release copy of Embrace the Passion: Pets in Space™ 3 today!

Overview of Stories

S.E. Smith: HEART OF THE CAT: Sarafin Warriors Series

Can love bridge the gap between a wounded alien warrior and the reclusive human woman who holds the future of his species inside her?

Anna Hackett: DESERT HUNTER: Galactic Gladiators Series

Among the desert sands of an alien world, a man with secrets to hide finds himself face to face with the one woman who can bring him to his knees.

Ruby Lionsdrake: QUASHI: Mandrake Company Series

Alien fur balls, a handsome doctor, and a little white lie create havoc for a young woman who only wanted a job.

Veronica Scott: STAR CRUISE: MYSTERY DANCER: The Sectors SF Romance Series

A long-lost princess and her three-eyed cat seek refuge on the Nebula Zephyr only to catch the attention of an inquisitive Security Officer.

Pauline Baird Jones: OPERATION ARK: Project Enterprise Series

A not quite routine mission to return rescued prisoners to their home worlds turns deadly for unlikely allies, a USMC Sergeant and a raised-by-robots pirate. Is the Sergeant’s unusual pet the wild card that will save or doom them?

Carol Van Natta: CATS OF WAR: A Central Galactic Concordance Novella

A disgraced military Sub-Captain, a repair technician with secrets, and two special cats must save the day when trouble erupts at an important factory.

Tiffany Roberts: HUNTER OF THE TIDE: The Kraken #3

Nearly broke by betrayal, a human discovers solace—and a chance for love—among the creatures he once hunted, but he must overcome prejudice and inhibition to claim the female he desires.

Alexis Glynn Latner: STARWAY

A lonely interstellar pilot and a passenger’s mistreated consort find each other in an interstellar hotel that offers everything to satisfy its guests’ desires—even desires they didn’t know they had.

E D Walker: THE BAJO CATS OF ANTEROS XII

Two ex-lovers, stranded in space, have to save a pair of kittens with hazardous powers before the local drug cartel catches up to them.

JC Hay: SHADOW OF THE PAST

On a world of perpetual night, an aging ranger and a widowed veterinarian need to put aside their past to protect a pack of wolves… and their future.

Kyndra Hatch: AFTER THE FALL

The Invaders took everything worth living for. Could an Invader show him how to live again?

BUY YOUR COPY AT:

Amazon Amazon UK  Amazon CA Amazon AU

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Keep in touch with other readers at Goodreads

 

Stories from the bus

Scooters

The holiday travels are over for now but I can share with you some of the stories our tour director, Sergio, told us while we were travelling from one place to another on the bus. He’s in his mid-forties, rather overweight and with one of those mobile faces that can get a whole paragraph across without saying a word. And yes, of course he used his hands. He’s Italian.

Sergio comes from the heel part of Italy, I gathered from a working-class family, but these days, he lives in Milan. He has a degree in architecture and was employed for a time in a design office. But he explained that in Italy, most of the work revolves around designing the interiors of heritage-listed buildings. Just about all of the buildings are heritage listed. Sergio was more interested in the bigger picture. He told us privately he’d love to visit Canberra. After we stopped guffawing he said it was because it was a city designed before the people moved in. And I could see his point. Canberra is beautifully laid out, with its wide boulevards and public areas. And, of course, a parliament house built into a hill.

Anyway, that’s something of an aside. Sergio is one of the best stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen, with terrific delivery, all accompanied by amazing body language. Please read these little stories with an Italian accent and wave your hands around to get into the spirit.

Sergio felt he wasn’t getting anywhere, so he packed it all in and went off to London, I think to join his sister, who had gone there to work and met a man, married, and stayed. Sergio didn’t speak much English but he was willing to try just about anything, so he took a job with Costa Coffee, a chain of coffee shops often found in train stations and the like. Carlo, another Italian working there, taught Sergio all he needed to know when talking to customers – the types of coffee, size of cups, food on offer, and where to find the toilet.

Sergio’s doing all right, getting out the orders, when a man comes in. “I’ll have a large cappuccino, one of those blueberry muffins, and”, leans forward, “where’s the loo.”

WherestheLoo? Sergio panics. WherestheLoo? What the hell’s a wherestheLoo? He looks around, looking for Carlo, but he’s nowhere to be seen?

“Sorry, Senor, we don’t have any wherestheLoo”

Customer rolls his eyes. “No. Where. Is. The. Loo?”

Sergio’s still none the wiser. Loo? What the hell’s a loo?

Carlo hoves into view. “Carlo”. He beckons, breaks into Italian. “He wants to know where the LOO is? What do I say?”

Carlo pats him on the shoulder, apologises to the customer. “Sorry. He’s new. Over there, just around the corner.” To Sergio he says, “That’s what they call the toilet here.  Or they might say bathroom, gents, ladies, mens, womens, lav, washroom, WC…”

Sergio’s back on the bus with us and he laughs. “The best one I ever heard was an American lady who asked for ‘the powder room’.

London seems to have been quite the learning curve. When people came to the counter, they would often say, “How are you?”

Sergio thought about it. They’re asking how he is. That’s nice. He lines up his English sentence. “I had a sore throat this morning but I’m feeling better now, thank you.”

The customer blinks, then says, “I’ll have an espresso and a piece of raisin toast.”

Eventually, Sergio consulted with his friend, Carlo. “They don’t expect you to say anything but maybe ‘fine, thanks’. It’s not like in Italy,” he explained. “It’s just another way of saying hello.”

“Now in Italy,” Sergio said back in the bus, “You can go to a shop and if you’re third in the queue and the customer says, “How are you?” it starts a whole conversation.”

The lady serving says, “Well, I’ve got a nasty sore on my arm that won’t go away.” Shows her arm.

Customer says, “Oh that’s bad. Have you been to the doctor?”

Server says, “Yes, I went to see Dr G. He gave me some ointment, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.”

Another customer chimes in. “Dr G? Eh. He’s no good. You should see Dr T. She’s excellent. My grandma went to see her for her sore back. It’s all better now.”

And so it goes. In Italy don’t ask someone how they are – unless you’ve got plenty of time. Differences in culture, you see.

On another occasion he told us about his brush with HM tax collectors (Revenue and Customs). He’d been paying tax in the UK, of course. Or at least, Costa Coffee did, on his behalf. One day, Sergio received a letter. An official letter. Window face with a Government logo.

His heart beating a little faster, he opened it. The long and the short was there was a discrepancy in his tax, he was entitled to a refund, and he should go to the head office to have the matter attended to. Sergio was petrified. If you got a formal letter from the government back home in Italy, you were in deep doo-doo. But he hadn’t done anything wrong!

He phones his father back home in Italy. “Papa, I have to go talk to the tax people in London. But I haven’t done anything wrong!!!”

His father sighs. “Sergio, Sergio. You should have stayed in your nice job in the architect’s office. But no, you had to head off to foreign parts. Now you’ve fallen foul of the government. Oh Sergio! I’ll have to visit you in jail.”

Papa was a great help.

Eventually, Sergio plucks up some courage and presents himself at the office in London, where he eventually speaks to a po-faced clerk who asks how he can help.

Sergio hands over his letter. “I got this in the mail. But I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Unsmiling, the clerk reads the letter and looks up at Sergio. “It seems you’re entitled to a refund for overpaid tax.”

Overpaid? Refund? Refund?? Really? They were going to give him money? Back on the bus, Sergio turns to Roberto, the driver. “Do they pay you refunds in Italy, Roberto?”

Roberto laughs.

But Sergio got his refund, paid in cash.

He also gave us some demonstrations of Italian hand language. That’s too hard to describe, so I won’t try. Suffice to say he told us about a time when he was in one of those tedious, over-long meetings. His only Italian colleague was seated some distance away, but Sergio was able to communicate “this is boring, let’s leave for coffee” without saying a word.

Another time, back in London, he saw a man on the other side of the road attempting to take money out of an ATM with an obvious lack of success. Sergio crossed the road and said to him, in Italian, “You look like you’re having trouble. Can I help?”

The man’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you know I’m Italian?”

“You were trying to have a conversation with the ATM using your hands.”

Sergio was a great stand-up comedian. I think if he entered the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, or better still, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, he would be a certain hit. We did suggest it. But I think he has a good life taking tourists around Italy and France. He would have been totally wasted working in an architect’s office. It was a pleasure to meet him.

Tuscan countryside

 

Our final day

Our last day in Tuscany was very full. In the morning we went to San Gimignano, a little medieval village on a hilltop. And it certainly was a charming place. The bus parked in the bus carpark with the other buses at the bottom of the hill and we walked up, through the gates, into the town. Have you noticed a pattern here?

The town is famous for its towers. Each powerful family tried to outdo the rest by building a higher tower, so in the distance the little town looks like the CBD of a modern city. Eventually everyone agreed that no tower could be higher than the church tower. This link will tell you a little more about the city’s history – and show you a landscape photo of the towers on the hill.

Both Pete’s pic. With enhancements by me. 🙂

There’s no doubt these places were very much like castles. Often you’ll find two sets of gates close together with an enclosed area between them, That was so you could trap the enemy between the two and drop boiling water, or fire, or faeces down on them. Apart from the entrance gate this town has two main squares, with gates between them. One – the most important one at those times – has the well which supplied water to the town. When we visited both squares were chock full of market stalls, and tables and chairs spilling out from cafes and restaurants. And people.

Pork was very much the order of the day. It’s apparently wild pig.

Lovely ceramics. Pete wanted to buy a bottle for olive oil, but they weren’t cheap and I said we’d be able to get one in Oz. Maybe in the ’70’s we could have…

Walking up the hill we passed craft shops, food shops (many displaying wild boar, which seems to be a speciality in these parts), souvenir places offering Florentine leather goods at much better prices than in Florence itself. Needless to say, the streets were full of tourists.

The well and the market. Pete’s pic.

What the square looks like without the market. Pete’s pic.

However, if you kept your eyes open to read the signs, you could nip away from the throngs onto places with panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.

The view from the village

There’s always a haze in Europe

Roberto wasn’t driving our bus today. He was ‘out of hours’ so another fellow did the driving, though Roberto did come along, too. We set off down the motorway and through several of the many, many toll points. It costs a bit to drive on Italian roads. Then we veered off into the Tuscan landscape, all rolling hills and golds and browns. It reminded me a little of Australia.

One thing we didn’t see much of at any time in Italy was livestock out in the fields. It was so rare that one of us would say, “Oh look. There’s a cow.” We never got a good explanation. But we were told that just about everyone in Italy takes August off. Factories close – and we knew that was true because we visited a leather factory where we were shown how goods were made, although there were no workers at the benches. So we figured the animals had gone to the beach, too.

We drove along narrow country roads barely big enough for the bus, negotiating curves and hair pin bends. I guess the drivers are used to it in the little towns. They try to leave enough space for the buses to ease their way through. But it doesn’t always work out. Our bus side-swiped a BMW. The bus driver didn’t stop, later claiming he didn’t know he’d hit anybody. Maybe he didn’t, but we in the middle rows of the bus heard the noise and felt the bump. The evidence was displayed along the bus’s side, a long scratch of black paint.

Pete’s pic from the bus

Our destination was a sheep farm which specialised in making pecorino cheese. We had lunch there, sampling pecorino of different ages. I confess I found it a bit bland and tasteless. But we had a lovely lunch of tomato soup followed by cheese, salad and cold meats. I’d count it as the nicest meal we had in Italy. We still didn’t see any sheep, although the resident donkey at least showed us his rear end as he flounced off. We were told the sheep were resting down in the gully in the shade. At least that made sense.

The resident donkey wasn’t at all interested (Pete’s pic)

Lunch. That’s a spelt salad – and in fact it looks a lot like the soup we had at the feast – without the water. There was also a green salad. Pete’s oic.

That evening, the last of the tour, Roberto drove us to the second hilltop of Montecatini Alto, not the one where the funiculare runs, where we were taken to a restaurant overlooking the town for what we were told would be a Tuscan feast. At a different time of year we might have seen a great sunset. The meal itself was interesting. We were served a plate of antipasto, consisting of different salamis. Nothing else. The soup was spelt mixed with diced vegetables (Spelt is a bit like pearl barley). This was followed by two types of pasta with sauces. There’s never much sauce with pasta in Italy. After that we were offered a plate of white beans, something like butter beans. The four of us declined, pretty full up on stodge by now. There were two meats courses; a slow cooked beef stew, and thinly sliced roast beef served with a green vegetable like spinach. All of this was accompanied by local wine, red and/or white. We all remarked on the absence of vegetables.

Dessert was delicious, pastry topped with custard and fruit in clear jelly, like a fruit flan.

And that’s it for Europe 2018. Unless you didn’t read about our Wonderful Trip Home. Don’t miss that. You’ll find it here.

Oh – and if you like my blogs, you might like my BOOKS. They’re for sale, you know.

 

 

A day of rest (sort of)

The village from the train station

The following day the tour offered an optional extra, a day-trip to the Cinque Terre – or at least, a couple of the villages. Naturally, we declined. Been there, done that, but a number of our group did go for what would be a long, tiring day – starting with a two-hour bus trip to La Spezia.

We decided to visit the old part of Montecatini – Montecatini Alto. We’d seen it several times from the bus, perched high up on two hill tops. There is a road up there, and we saw some people doing the hike, but we passed. There’s a little train that makes the trip every half hour. Built in 1898, it’s called the Funiculare because it’s a funiclar. The two trains go up and down at the same time, balancing each others weight on the cable that provides the lift. It’s sort of like an elevator.

The views from up there in the village are pretty special. Narrow lanes, steep slopes, and places in need of attention were the order of the day. We had a look at the old fort at the top of the hill, unsurprised that the medieval construction existed. Medieval Italy must have been a very dangerous place for people to cart stone and other building materials up those slopes to build a village. Judging by the number of chairs and tables out in the main square, the town was expecting a lot of visitors. We had a cup of coffee and went back down in the little rail car.

Montecatini is famous as a spa resort and a couple of the remaining spas are in the park between the funiculare and the hotel. They’re those frothy, nineteenth century buildings. A few ladies from our tour group had booked in one of them for a massage and treatment and I’m sure they had a lovely time. We walked back through a market with the usual sort of tourist goods – clothes, pottery and the like. Since it was lunchtime we checked menus at a few cafes and decided on the one that offered HAMBURGERS!

Taken from the hotel room

Summer storms were building over the hills when we returned to the hotel. It seemed like a good time to do not much, so we did.

Pete and I had gravitated to a restaurant called something like the Green Parrot (in Italian) for dinner most nights. The food was cheap, so was the wine, and the casual atmosphere suited us. For this evening, though, we went to a more upmarket restaurant tucked in a side street with red and white checked tablecloths on the tables. We’d walked past it on the way back to the hotel the previous night. It was around 7:30pm and we asked the proprietor if he had a table for four. Yes, he said, but it’s booked for 9:30, so you’d have to be finished by then. Italians eat late. We don’t. No worries, we told him. Really, after our hamburger lunch we were hardly starving, and we had a lovely meal with a local wine.

We learned later that the travellers to Cinque Terre had an exciting time. Sergio would have been hard pressed, and came through with flying colours. One of the group had a diabetic episode as they were about to board a ferry. Sergio had to get him and his wife to a hospital for treatment and still cater for the other eight or so people. He certainly would have had his hands full. Everybody else said they’d had a great day, spending time in Monte Rosso and in Vernazza. The patient soon recovered and came back to Montecatini with everybody else. I guess that’s one way of making a trip memorable.

Tomorrow is our last full day before we start our journey home. We’ll visit a lovely mountain village, have a wonderful lunch at a cheese farm, and then have a final Tuscan feast.

 

The world’s craziest horse race

The Campo. Note the people standing in the shadow of the tower. It was HOT.

Next on our city-state itinerary was Siena, perched high on a Tuscan hillside. It has several claims to fame. Like Florence, its wealth came from banking, not so much trade. However, the city is situated on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage path to Rome. It was a great place for a stopover well away from the mosquito-ridden marshes in the surrounding countryside. Always a plus.

The fountain

As usual, the bus had to stop outside the town and we had quite a long walk through the city gates up to the town hall and the city square, known as the Campo. Squares don’t have to be square, and this one is more bowl-shaped. It’s an accurate simile because the city’s water supply comes from underground. The water supply was vital for Siena’s prosperity. The hill on which the city is built is full of tunnels carrying water, which was stored in reservoirs guarded by armed men. This excellent article explains how the systems worked. There’s a fountain on the Campo facing the town hall and on each side of the fountain are faucets with potable water. Yes, we drank some.

The cathedral

What was going to be the extension of the cathedral – now the walls of a carpark

Detail of the carvings

Our local guide took us along to the cathedral. There, she explained that the marble walls are actually stone clad in marble. The beautiful carvings are hollow, all to reduce weight while still looking spectacular. The cathedral is large, but when the Sienese learned that Pisa was building an even larger cathedral, they decided to expand this one. We were taken to an area now used as a carpark, but the outlines of a massive building are obvious. The intention had been to use the existing cathedral as the nave for a vast new cathedral, double the size of the current building. The project stalled around 1348 because the Black Plague decimated the city, wiping out as much as half of the population.

Siena is also known for the world’s craziest horse race, run twice a year in July and August. We visited the city a few days after the August race and there were still traces of the clay used to cover the Campo for the race. Each horse represents a Contrada, or neighbourhood. In Melbourne you could think Carlton, Fitzroy, Footscray, Hawthorn… sort of like local football teams. Each Contrada gets a horse according to a ballot, and it’s the horse that wins. The jockeys ride bareback and if they fall off (which happens a lot), if the riderless horse wins, it’s the winner. There’s a lot of pomp nd circumstance surrounding each race, all with obviously medieval origins. This little video will give you a taste of what it’s all about.

I’ve watched a few videos of the race. The horses look very relaxed and comfortable despite the crowds and the noise. I expect they’re specially trained for the event, rather like police horses. It looks like a fabulous festival, but I think I would hate to be there on the day. Far too many people. And, of course, the horses. Allergies, you know.

Hitching ring? Certainly a snake

Just one of the little shops in the narrow streets

It’s a lovely city with lots of narrow (steep) streets to explore. We passed on vsiting the cathedral (All Cathedraled Out) and found a little cafe that sold coffee and gelato. The gelato was magnificent.

After lunch we piled back on the bus and drove to a vineyard, watching a summer storm building up on the horizon. It looked like Montecatini – or the road to get there – might be getting wet. At the winery and nice young woman (why is always young women?) told us all about Chianti. First thing to know – it’s not a wine variety, it’s a district. It’s a bit like saying ‘Barossa Valley’ or ‘Champagne’. This winery made red wine, most of merlot. We were taken to where the grapes were growing, just in time to see Roberto absconding with a couple of bunches of grapes. I’d always thought wine grapes weren’t all that nice to eat, but I was wrong. I wasn’t the only one to pick a grape or two to taste. They were delicious.

Storm over the vineyard. We saw several flashes of lightning – but it was a long way away

Merlot grapes

We were given two vintages of wine to taste, one a straight merlot, the other blended with I forget. We also tasted some of the winery’s own extra virgin olive oil, and then we headed back to Montecatini, avoiding the rain.

 

The leaning tower and a cooking class

Much as I despise crowds, I did want to see the famous leaning tower at Pisa. I guess. And yes, it sure does lean. In fact it is a bow leg – leans one way for a few courses, then the engineers tried to straighten it up, building the following courses at a slight angle. It has had that lean since it was built in the twelfth century. According to Wikipedia, it was due to inadequate preparation of the foundations before construction. It’s certainly not the only leaning tower in the world. Venice has quite a few, and Amsterdam has a lot of leaning houses, if not so much towers. Sandy or marshy ground is usually the culprit. We were offered the option of climbing the tower but everyone declined.

The bow shape is clear in this photo. Yes, the lens has exacerbated the curve, but it’s really there

The tower is actually the bell tower for Pisa’s cathedral. Remember the marble mountains at Carraras that we spied form the train? This is where quite a bit of it went.

It’s a lot of fun watching everybody trying to get pictures of somebody apparently holding up the tower. This is just a few of them.

We walked around the outside of the cathedral to the baptistery behind the main building. As we walked I overheard somebody say, “Oh that’s new. I was here in 2012 and I’m sure that building wasn’t there.”

Rolls eyes.

The baptistery

Our guide explained that people who had not been baptised could not enter the cathedral. They were taken to the baptistery to be baptised and then they could enter the cathedral through the magnificent doorway directly opposite the baptistery, a sort of progression into the glory of God. I have to confess that most of the interior photos were taken by Pete, whose simple tablet coped with the low light conditions better than my Canon. (Flash is not allowed in these places.)

Entry to the baptistery is strictly controlled. Groups of a certain size enter at fifteen-minute intervals. I thought that was just crowd control, but it isn’t. Everyone was asked to be silent, then a woman walked over to a central point, and this happened, as recorded by Himself.

The singer

Every time I listen to this a get goose bumps. It’s one voice in this wonderful place. I think this would be THE highlight of the entire tour for me.

Then we went off to the cathedral. Although it looks plain on the outside, the inside is as opulent as you’d expect. Here’s some basic information on its design. The article refers to the on-going rivalry between Pisa, Genoa and Venice, all major maritime powers during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Florence and Siena, all the world’s financiers, were in the mix for different reasons.

The amount of money spent on these religious buildings is staggering, especially when you think about the lives of the ordinary folk. Still, I suppose it provided employment to any number of tradespeople who kept the economy going.

Like most of these towns, other people can hop into a horse-drawn buggy to be taken on a sight-seeing tour. It’s something I have to take into account because I’m very allergic to horses – despite the fact I adore them. We retired to an air-conditioned café for lunch, which was once again a pizza. I never thought I’d say this, but I was just about pizzaed out.

That evening we went off to a country pub to have a cooking class and dinner. Our bus driver , Roberto, had to negotiate a bridge which was only slightly wider than the bus. I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one remembering the recent disaster at Genoa, where a motorway bridge collapsed.

But, since I’m writing this, we obviously survived. The hotel chef put us to work, preparing vegetables and pasta dough while sipping wine. It turned out to be a heap of fun and we got to know our fellow travellers a bit better. I’m sure dinner was not what we prepared, but something the chef had whipped up earlier. Once again, the food offered few vegetables, although chopped carrots, onions, celery, and tomatoes were used in a simple pasta sauce.

Dressed up and preparing vegetables. Note glass of vino.

The next day we would be travelling to Siena, another of the powerful city-states of middle-ages Italy.

Lucca, the Devil’s Bridge and some navel-gazing

The Devil’s bridge

The City of the Day today was Lucca, and this was one of the rare occasions when there was an echo of Rome. In fact the town predates the Romans, having been settled by the Etruscans, but became a Roman city in 180BC. Lucca is a walled city – or should I say still is a walled city. Most towns had walls which remained until they burst at the seams and the walls came down. The original wall here was Roman, but it was built on and expanded. Lucca became one of Italy’s powerful, independent city states, in constant rivalry with Pisa, in particular.

Then when Napoleon overran Italy he had his sister, Elisa, take over government in Lucca. She planted the trees on the city walls, which now are places to walk or cycle. The city has expanded beyond the walls but the people who live within the walls consider themselves more “Luccan” than those who live outside.

Taken from the city walls

Our local guide took us for a walk through the streets, pointing out the remains of the Roman Colosseum which is now the city ‘square’. There’s a beautiful medieval church, it’s edifice lined with marble (of course). We were told the story of St Zita, who worked in a noble household. She used to give bread to the poor, effectively stealing it from her master. One day the man thought to catch her and made her open her coat where she’d hidden the loaves. Lo… the bread had turned into… no, not wood, that was St Emilion in France. Zita’s loaves turned to flowers.

(I did wonder, in both cases, why the master didn’t ask why he/she was carrying wood/flowers inside his/her coat… but oh well.)

Saint Zita’s mortal remains lie in state in a casket in the church, a bit like Sleeping Beauty. In one of the miracles, when she died her body did not decompose, it mummified. Here’s her story.

Apart from St Zita, Lucca’s most famous son was the composer, Puccini. His statue, cigarette in hand, stands in one of the many squares.

One of the little streets. It’s Sunday and everything is closed. Except the church

It’s now apartments but the circular wall of the colsseum is obvious

Lucca was lovely, much less overrun by tourists than most of the other places we visited. It was also the one place where I found something other than a ham and cheese panini or focaccia, or pizza, to eat for lunch. The little café where we ate offered small bread rolls shaped like a croissant filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

From Lucca we went to see the Devil’s bridge. You can see the height of the arch in the photo at the top of the post and it was quite a scramble to the top. It dates back to around 1100 and is quite a feat of medieval engineering. Our guide told us the local builder had little success in finishing this bridge. He couldn’t get the arch to stay put, and time was running out. As he tossed and turned in his bed the Devil came to him and said he would finish the bridge – but in return he would take the soul of the first one to cross it. The builder agreed. The next morning, the bridge was complete and the builder was hailed for his work. But there stood the Devil on the far side, waiting for payment. Nobody wanted to cross – and then one man had an idea. He found a haunch of meat and a hungry dog. When he tossed the meat across the bridge, the dog followed – and the Devil was forced to take his price.

Of course, that’s rubbish. Everybody knows all dogs go to Heaven.

After our bit of exercise we went to visit some fortifications from the Gothic Line, a tunnel system which the Germans built in Italy after the Italians swapped from the Axis to the Allied side. I gathered the museum we entered hasn’t been around for all that long. Italians appear to be a bit ambivalent about WW2. A few volunteers set up this little museum and still run it, remembering a difficult time. Overnight Germans they’d fought with were suddenly enemies. There were acts of real heroism, like the Italian girl who carried photos of the plans of the tunnels through the German lines every day. She said in an interview she didn’t feel brave. She was 21 and indestructible.

That short visit had me thinking. I didn’t take photos. The museum was very personal, about the people and their memories.

And tomorrow we’re back to tourist hell – the leaning tower of Pisa.

Off to Florence

The tour of Tuscany was about culture, art, and a glimpse of Italian medieval history. During the middle ages a number of powerful city-states held sway over much of Italy.  There was Venice, of course – which was not on our itinerary and not in Tuscany. But we would visit one of Venice’s and Rome’s greatest rivals – Florence, which flourished under the rule of the Medici family. We would also visit Lucca, Pisa, and Siena, which all vied for prominence for hundreds of years.

First cab off the rank was Firenze (Florence). Like all the other cities we visited, buses are off limits within a certain distance of the old city, so there’s always a fair bit of walking through narrow, cobbled streets.

The street outside the Accademia

Our first destination was the Galleria dell’Accademia, which was, and still is, an art school. We were going to see what is probably one of the most famous statues in the world, Michelangelo’s imposing statue of David, referred to by all our guides simply as “The David”. Our tour had organised tickets for us, which was just as well. Crowds of people waited outside and official-looking touts worked the crowd selling tickets at exorbitant prices. We had to start our tour at a particular time and we had to go through security such as you do at the airport (but not quite so stringent). Entry took longer than it should have. I wondered what people didn’t understand about not taking any metal objects through the gate. (I think it’s often because a lot of people don’t actually fucking listen when they’re given a briefing.)

Rape of the Sabine Women

Hey ho. Our local guide took us into the main chamber, where we admired a stunning ceiling. The we all gathered around what I thought was the famous statue, “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. I overheard somebody say, “Is that the David?” Ummm. Maybe the statue of David isn’t famous everywhere? But it wasn’t Giambologna’s marble masterpiece, either, which we did see in Florence’s main square. Sculptors usually created a mock-up of what the finished work was going to look like before they started on the marble. What we were looking at was that mock-up. Our guide made the point that Michelangelo never did mock-ups. He was very full of himself, trusting his skill with marble blocks that he usually selected himself. He and his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, did not get on.

We looked at a number of statues that had been started but never finished for various reasons, often because the patron changed his mind.

And then we reached The David. The statue is surrounded by a clear barrier so people can’t actually touch it. Apparently, some demented individual took to it with a hammer, damaging one foot, which explains the security to come into the gallery. It’s imposing, to say the least. Col noticed right away that the hands seemed too large. He was correct. The nearly 6m statue was supposed to have been displayed up high on the roofline of the Florence cathedral but that never happened. It stood outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the weather for more than 350 years before it was brought to the Accademia. A replica was placed in the square.

Look at the expression

Seeing it for real, it was the face (yes, really) that attracted me. There’s so much expression carved into the stone – or as Michelangelo would have said, released from the stone. He’s got a nice bum, too.

We were able to take a quick look at some of the other exhibits, much of it religious art, before we moved on into the city to see the fabulous cathedral from the outside.

I did not like the crowds

This is what happened to just a bit of those marble mountains

Just one archway. It’s a stunning building

We had several hours of free time in Florence. We were told it wouldn’t be enough to get more than a cursory glance at anything in the Uffizi Gallery – and judging by the queues, that was right. There were queues to get into the cathedral, too. We wandered around the old city, ate lunch in a tiny café, then went down to the river to see the Ponte Vecchio.

The Ponte Vecchio – all the shops on the bridge are gold and silversmiths

There’s no way you can see Florence in a day. We got a glimpse, that is all. But we did get to see The David – in the flesh, as it were.