Category Archives: Travel

Norfolk’s wildlife

Norfolk Island used to be covered in Norfolk Island pines packed close together – the same terrain you’ll find around Mt Pitt and Mt Bates in the national park. When the white man came, all that changed. The trees were cut down to make room for cultivation and exotic animals were introduced – horses, sheep, cattle, goats, rabbits, dogs, rats, mice, pigs. And a few avian interlopers like chickens,  sparrows, and blackbirds. Later, crimson rosellas came across from Australia and set up their own population. And then there was corn, bananas, mangoes, paw paws, peaches, grapes, a failed attempt at wheat, and even cold season fruit like apples. I’m sure that’s not an exhaustive list.

A gannet chick under a pine right next to the bloody bridge

The gannet chick up close. Or maybe that’s mum.

For a long time there was no restriction on what you could bring to Norfolk. That’s all changed now and you have to get past the clever little beagles at the airport who can sniff food a city block away. But a lot of damage has been done. On an island with no native mammals, birds could nest on the ground. It’s still possible but rather a lot more dangerous. I’m sure gannets have nested under this Norfolk Island pine right next to the bloody bridge for probably longer than human settlers. We could see a chick in the nest when we visited last year and there was a chick there this year, too. Or maybe it’s an adult bird sitting on eggs.

A crimson rosealla, introduced from Oz. They’ve changed a little from the Australian birds.

When the thick rainforest began to be cleared nesting sites for the local birds became in short supply. The feral rosellas compete with the endemic green parrot for nesting hollows and until recently the local birds were facing extinction. Fortunately, the national park people stepped in and carried out a breeding program, providing nesting boxes. Today the parrot population is in a far less parlous condition. Although I didn’t get a photo, I saw one cross the road in front of us as we drove down Mt Pitt. Read the whole story here.

The native owl, the morepork, is effectively extinct. A very closely related species is alive and well in the forests – but only because two male owls from a closely-related New Zealand species were brought to the island in the hope that the sole surviving female would mate with one of them. She did. But the birds are very inbred and are consequently under threat. Read more about it here.

A tern chick waits to be fed

Adult tern

Not sure if this one is incubating

The sea birds can roost on the islets around the shores where they are protected. The tern, however, has an interesting way of raising chicks. They lay eggs on a branch of a pine tree, using the same location every year. If the egg falls, they’ll lay another one. The chick hatches and spends its days clinging to the perch while the parent birds feed it until it can fly. Some will inevitably fall prey to a raptor but that’s life.

I mentioned that once you have your own car you can go off to find interesting things. One of them was a waterfall. A Waterfall! On Norfolk Island. But then when you think about it, there are creeks and when there’s  a lot of rain the water has to go into the sea somehow. So when we saw the sign on the map for Cockpit waterfall we had to take a look. There was water in the creek but not enough to activate the waterfall, a ledge of rock in a steep-sided valley overlooking the sea.

It would be quite spectacular when the creek was running.

That’s it for another year. I doubt we’ll go again but if you haven’t been I’m sure you’ll agree the island is worth a visit. Do take the tours, though. Old ruins are so much more interesting if you know what they are. Here are a few websites you might want to look at.

Norfolk Island Travel Centre Covers accommodation, tours and the like

Ten things you might not know about Norfolk Island This one is particularly interesting

Discover Norfolk Island This site covers the island’s history as well as other aspects

 

 

The cemetery – stories of the past

The bushes on the left bank have swallowed some of the grave stones

Last year Peter and I had gone on a conducted tour of Kingston’s convict ruins with a descendant of the Christian family. I’d strongly suggest that anybody going to Norfolk for the first time attends the tours. The guides are mines of information, telling stories of convicts and jailers, painting a vivid picture of the past. I wrote about that visit here. The old jail was a horrible place and some of the jailers were sadistic brutes.

There’s not much to see in the rectangle that forms the main walls of the prison. The stone was taken away to use elsewhere, some of fairly recently. I’ve seen a black and white photo from the 1920’s where some of the cell walls were still intact. It was no doubt used to rebuild the lovely Georgian mansions along Quality Row. At least one of the homes, fully restored, is open for visitors. There’s also a museum for HMS Sirius, flag ship of the First Fleet which sailed into Port Jackson in 1788. She took the first settlers to Norfolk Island and sunk just off the coast of Kingston in Slaughter Bay.

We headed for the old cemetery. We’d been there before but it deserved more time. Again, it’s worth going with a guide and some of what I say now I heard last year.

The cemetery is still used. Wandering around the more modern parts you’ll see the same surnames repeated: Christian, Bailey, Adams, Buffet, Quinlan – all the descendants of the Pitcairn Islanders who arrived in the 1850’s. There’s no undertaker on Norfolk. If someone dies (as happened when we were there) an announcement is made on the local radio and the Norfolk and Australian flags are flown at half mast. Some of the locals dig the grave for the price of a couple of cartons of beer. Everyone is invited to the service via the radio.The grounds are well-tended and maybe because it was Christmas, many of the graves had flowers, mostly artificial, long-lasting colour.

Pass between four large gate pillars though, and you walk back into time. This was where the dead from the first settlement and the second settlement were buried.

There aren’t many gravestones from the first settlement which ended in 1815, but we found a few. Although there were convicts in that settlement, Norfolk was not at that time a penal colony. That came later – and convicts were given little recognition. A simple wooden cross marked their place and they have been destroyed by the wind and the salt spray. The ground we walked over has been x-rayed. It’s packed with bodies. I expect there are records of who was bried but the markers are gone. Many of the gravestones are illegible for the same reason. Gravestones and in some cases mausoleums were erected for the officers and men of the guard units and their wives and children. Some convicts have gravestones – those executed for mutiny or similar, and also the female convicts.

Walking over the grass I was reminded of the rediscovered cemetery on Rottnest Island where aboriginal prisoners were buried without recognition. It seems any kind of convict got the same treatment. Reading the gravestones it is obvious that life was harsh. Many men were Irish, and many died young. Many children died. Quite a few men drowned while crossing bars, or fishing. There’s no record of the many convicts who drowned as they crossed the channel from Kingston to Nepean Island to cut stone blocks for the buildings.

Come with me and visit some of these past lives, footnotes in the journals of history. Some tell a story, some are simply names but all were people who lived.

This grave is hidden under sculpted bushes that were supposed to be along the edge of the cemetery but have engulfed several graves.

All the grass you can see covers bodies. It’s full.

Not everybody died young

 

 

Something interesting around every corner

A section of dirt road (most of it is bitumen). The sea is just over to the right, at the bottom of a 70m cliff. (See next photo)

The nicest thing about doing your own thing on Norfolk Island is you can take your time and stop anywhere you want. It’s hard to imagine but no, we hadn’t seen the whole island on our visit last year. This time we stopped off at every picnic spot along the cliffs to admire the wonderful scenery. We could wonder what was up that road and go and find out. Sometimes it was a disappointment – but not very often.

Cows have right of way on Norfolk.

The open road speed limit on the island is 50kph (about 30mph) and that’s eminently sensible. Most of the road surfaces are joined-together-filled-in-pot-holes, a rattle and a bump guaranteed for every metre travelled. The narrow roads twist and turn around the hills and valleys and when you go around that blind bend you might encounter another vehicle, or maybe a cow ambling across the road to the greener grass.

The picnic spots are all at the top of towering cliffs. Gannets and terns wheel in the air, sometimes far below where we stood, while the Pacific ocean crashed itself against the volcanic rocks in a flurry of white foam.

This was taken from the Captain Cook memorial noting his ‘discovery’ of the island in 1774. The small islets you can see are protected, safe habitat for sea birds. You can see the guano on the nearer one.

We drove down to Cascade Bay where the whaling station used to be. It’s all gone now, leaving flat spaces where the buildings used to stand. The only reminder of those darker days is the boilers where the whale oil was produced from the blubber.

The stratas of rock and lava produced by the volcanoes that made Norfolk is obvious at Cascade, where the hillside was cut away to form a flat area for parking.

The sea is much calmer (today) than at Kingston and I seem to remember the locals saying they would have liked to build a better harbour here. But, just as in outback Australia, the Powers That Be (PTB) in the large capital cities don’t listen to the locals. They foist the same rules and regulations on the people in these remote places that work in Brisbane or Sydney. For example, after NSW took over, the locals were no longer allowed to sell unpasteurised milk. They’d managed to survive for several hundred years on the raw stuff – but no. It’s the law. About fifteen hundred people live on Norfolk. The cost of a plant to pasteurise milk was out of the question, so milk is imported from New Zealand and all the cows on the roads and the farm paddocks are beef cattle. The PTB wasted millions on the pier iat Cascade, making no difference to the arduous business of landing supplies on the island.

The cost of living here is high – but when you see what has to happen to bring cargo ashore, it’s no wonder. There are no ports on the island. Cargo ships drop anchor off either the Cascade pier or the Kingston pier (depending on the weather) in deep water. The locals tow lighters out to the waiting ship. Cargo is lowered into the lighters and transported back to shore, where another crane is used to unload the boats. If the cargo is large (such as a bus or car) two lighters in parallel carry a platform out to the freighter and the vehicle is lowered onto that. Insurance costs are high but the possibility of loss or damage is high as well.

This is a picture of the lighters they use – although this one might be a little way past its use-by date.

The Kingston pier on a realively calm day

The Cascade pier on the same day. It all depends on the wind direction

Without the protection of the reef the waves crash against the shore just past the Kingston pier

Although there are a lot of solar panels on roofs, the main, reliable power is created with a diesel generator. Diesel is pumped from a ship anchored off shore via a pipe at Ball Bay. Power is expensive, so there’s no air conditioning. Anywhere. (Except cars – that’s different). The locals use the old fashioned methods – ceiling fans and open windows. But temperature isn’t an issue here. It’s mid-twenties pretty much all year round, with nights in the teens. The ocean flattens out temperature variations. It’s a sub-tropical climate, rather like Hervey Bay, but with much better soil.

That’ll do for this post. Next time I’ll talk about the penal colony.

The secret life of trees

When visitors arrive on Norfolk Island they’re picked up by a tour bus and taken for a half-day orientation tour, with the guide pointing out the main attractions. After a quick trip through the main township at Burnt Pine, featuring one roundabout and absolutely no traffic lights, we stop briefly at the lookout above Kingston, where the guide points out the wonderful Georgian buildings of Government House and Quality Row (that’s the name of the street). Over there across the golf course is Emily Bay, down there is the cemetery, that’s the old gaol and associated buildings. He drives around the foreshore from the pier, past the old gaol and out to the point where the lone pine stands sentinel. It’s an old tree. It appeared in drawings made for Captain Cook when he ‘discovered’ the island in 1774. We’re taken for a brief look into St Barnabas’s Chapel, the only remaining building from the Melanesian Mission. We admire the 360° view from Mt Pitt and we’re taken to “Orn Da Cliff” where Pine Tree tours holds its weekly island fish-fry with associated sunset scenes. We make a brief stop at Cascade Bay, where the old whaling station used to be. And all the time we’re seeing the beautiful green hills and valleys of Norfolk, where cows amble across the road or lie on the banks chewing their cud as the bus trundles by. For a quick overview of Norfolk, I’d recommend this account. It’s very well written with nice pictures :).

We took the tour. It’s always interesting to listen to different guides. This one wasn’t a local. He’d lived on Norfolk for forty years or so, but he was a Sydney boy who married a lady from the island. He knew his stuff, but on our previous visit we’d been driven around by guys born and bred here, proud sixth or seventh generation descendants of the Pitcairn mutineers with names like Christian or Quintal or Buffet, or the descendants of convicts. Those guys told us stories of growing up here. One told us as a teenager he climbed the kentia palm trees to pick nuts. On one such occasion the young fellow reached the top of the tree and came face to face with a rat, which also wanted kentia nuts. Well, when you’re up there in the canopy of a palm tree down is the only way to go. And that’s what the rat did – scrambling over the human on the way. Not long after that they put guards around the tree trunks to stop the rats from going up.

Any eggs from these ladies are definitely free range

Our Sydney tour guide had a different view of the feral chooks (domestic chickens), too. Like the cattle, chooks are everywhere on Norfolk – and they can fly. They’re being culled and he said we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The eggs were stale and the chooks inedible and the cull was absolutely necessary. Hmmm. Last year we were told the cull was happening without consulting the locals. Our driver, who was not impressed, pointed out the chooks ate insects and did no harm, and when we visited locals in the progressive dinner, we saw feral chooks in people’s yards, and yes, the people collected the eggs. I’ll bet we ate a few, too. Chicken is a major item on Norfolk menus. The other thing the chooks do is scratch through the cow droppings looking for tasty treats, all the while spreading all that lovely goodness so the grass can use it.

All the mammals on Norfolk are feral, by the way. Including the people. The more polite expression is ‘introduced’. Like New Zealand, Norfolk’s natives are birds and plants. Sugar cane, bananas, arrowroot, kumara, stone fruit, corn, tomatoes – all are introduced. So was the Moreton Bay fig tree.

During the orientation tour the bus is driven down New Farm Road between the one hundred acre reserve and a magnificent row of Moreton Bay figs. The buses don’t stop there so it was our first ‘go to’ attraction when we ventured forth on our own.

There’s something a little bit spooky as you head up the road under the trees. I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s old forest, where Pippin and Merry are swallowed up by Old Man Willow, or the ents in Fangorn. I know this won’t mean much to you unless you’re a Lord of the Rings die-hard like me. But old and spooky are easy enough to understand. These trees are two hundred or more years old, probably planted by the first white settlers on the island some time between 1788 and 1815.

Pete’s head is just visible behind the root. He’s standing

And they look it. The roots writhe across the ground. Human fences are no obstacle. Buttress roots supporting the trunks tower up to over a tall man’s head. They’re studded with algae and ferns hide in corners. It’s easy to imagine these grand old gentlefolk talking to each other in the slow speech of trees. To them animal life must be a blur of movement. Or maybe not. Perhaps they’re well aware of us.

The fence has not impeded the tree in the least

Certainly they’re not ‘nice’.

They tolerate no competition. Look closely and you’ll find trees surrounded by roots. A brave Norfolk Island pine that took root next to the figs is slowly being strangled, joining others which have already met that fate.

This is one of the creepiest sights you’ll see here. The great tree has reached out to take a grip on an intruder. It doesn’t stand a chance.

From under the trees you catch glimpses of the sun-drenched cultivated valley. It’s a whole different world out there. I wondered why the trees had been planted. They’re not much good for timber and you can’t eat the fruit. That’s a question to which I expect I’ll never get an answer.

Follow the twisting road down toward the coast and you’ll cross the Bloody Bridge. It’s another place where the tours don’t stop – at least not for long enough to get off the bus for pictures. Our current guide did tell us an abbreviated version of the story of the name. It seems the convicts working on the building didn’t like their overseer at all, so they killed him. The more interesting version is that to hide evidence of the deed, the men popped the body into the bridge and kept working. The overseer had disappeared and they didn’t know what happened. The next day the replacement overseer noticed bloody weeping from the mortar between the stones.

The bloody bridge

There’s plenty of room to hide a body. Maybe one of those dark patches is blood???

 

A speck in the South Pacific

That’s tiny Phillip Island at the front and Norfolk Island behind it

We had a fascinating, memorable Christmas on Norfolk Island in 2017 and enjoyed it so much we went again in 2018. While we’d been with a group in 2017, in 2018 we did our own thing, visiting places we hadn’t reached the previous year, or re-visiting places where we would have liked a bit more time. We stayed in the same hotel but this time we had a penthouse with views of the island’s highest peak, Mt Pitt – and lots of lovely windows we could open to let in the breeze. There’s no air conditioning on the island. We were provided with a hire car to get around, together with a paper map. There’s no GPS covering the island roads. It’s all very last century but on an island that’s 8 km by 5 km, it’s really not that difficult.

We stayed in the main township, Burnt Pine. The convict remians are in Kingston at the bottom of the island on this map.

Getting there was a tiny bit thrilling. This time we stayed two nights at our friends’ house on Mt Tamborine south of Brisbane, where we witnessed the first of a number of storms that smashed the Gold Coast – but not up where we were. We drove to the airport, hoping we’d get an undercover parking spot this time. More storms were forecast, with hail the size of golf balls. Last year, though we’d paid online for undercover parking, we’d had to park outside in the elements, leaving the car to the mercy of the weather gods for over a week. This time, we were lucky, snaring a park on the top floor under the roof.

Although Norfolk Island is an Australian territory which has been managed from Australia for the past two years, we left from the international terminal. At least we don’t have to fill out departure cards anymore. After all, all the information you had to write down was already on your ticket. The flight to Norfolk left from one of the furthest extremities of Brisbane airport. It’s nowhere near the biggest in the world but it’s still a long walk to the gate without those moving travelators. And then there’s the several hours of waiting…

Proof of ID is required before you leave Australia. The Powers That Be prefer a passport but you can use a driver’s licence or other form of photo ID along with a proof of identity form that you can get from Australia Post. Once in the air we also had to fill in a landing form. (Just a moment while I roll my eyes.) Travelling to Norfolk is like flying from the mainland to Tasmania, for goodness sake. And this landing form is identical to the one you fill out when coming back from REAL overseas (eg Europe) into Australia. The cabin crew have to explain that yes, the form asks for your home address, but what it really wants is where you’ll be staying on Norfolk. Etc. We talked to a local in a shop, who told us that if she goes over to Oz, coming home she puts her name and address and nothing else. The immigration people know she’s a local.

We got off the ground on time for the two-hour flight to Norfolk. Pete had the window seat and his trusty tablet to take photos. Norfolk Island is a speck in the ocean and that’s so clear from the air (see above). Pete took pictures as we approached, coming down with historic Kingston clearly visible.

The wheels had hit the deck and the brakes were on, pushing us back into our seats. Then suddenly the brakes were off, the engines powered up and we lifted off again. When training pilots it’s called a touch and go – but I suspected this wasn’t a training run. After several minutes the captain came on to explain the aircraft had been hit by a cross-wind and he’d decided prudence was wisest. As a result, we got a fly-around of the island. Peter wasn’t the only one taking pictures before the plane finally landed.

The whole island. The high bit is Mt Pitt, surrounded by national park.

That’s Kingston below. The reef protects Emily Bay and Slaughter Bay, with the jetty where goods are landed just across from the large rectangle that is the remains of the prison. Evidence of Polynesian visitors in the mid-fifteenth century is in the grove of Norfolk Island pines around Emily Bay. The trees would not have been there then.

I’m not going to talk about Norfolk’s extraordinary history in this series of posts, though I’m sure it’ll get a mention in passing. You can read all about that in last year’s trip here. You’ll find posts about the brutal penal colony and how the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers involved in the mutiny on the Bounty came to move from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island. But this time we travelled at our own gentle pace, interspersed with an hour or two of test match cricket (which we won’t talk about).

If you’re interested in more information this is a useful website.

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 a 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 it 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.