Category Archives: Travel

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.

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.

Off to Tuscany – with a weird rash

That’s not snow on those mountains

It was time to say goodbye to La Spezia and hello to Montecatini Terme in Tuscany. Once again we caught a local train, then changed to an Intercity, the move happening without mishap. But I have to say the local trains in particular could use some maintenance. The train stopped at Carraras, the site of Italy’s marble mines. You see those mountains in the distance and think that’s snow. It’s not. It’s marble, whole mountains of marble. In the photo you can see a road zigzagging up the mountain to the left where they cut the blocks. Amazing. We were to see a lot of ways that marble was used.

Mountains of marble

We arrived at the railway station at Montecatini in mid-afternoon. It was 38C (around 100F) and there were no taxis at the rank. (Well… it was a Sunday). Did I say the person who invented wheels on suitacses deserves a medal? It was a 700m trundle and we felt the heat.

This was a 5 star hotel, but we had fun and games with the bathroom again. You couldn’t sit straight on the toilet because the shower stall was too close. The shower stall was… interesting. It had bi-fold doors all the way around so you could get in, but you then had to fold the doors closed around you. Once again, don’t drop the soap. The bi-fold doors didn’t seal properly, either, so water went all over the floor. The shower head and the basin tap both leaked, as well, and though we reported the issues, it was not fixed. We asked to be moved to another room which had a shower over the bath. That was better (even though I hate shower curtains).

That first evening we got to meet our fellow travellers. Out of twenty-seven, twenty were American. Apart from us, there were two Canadians and one Brit. Generally, everybody stayed with the people they were travelling with, but there was some mixing at breakfast. We also met our tour director, Sergio. He was terrific. He went out of his way to make sure everyone was comfortable and was also highly entertaining. I’ll talk more about him, but here’s one example.

First signs. A red rash above the line of my socks

While in La Spezia I had developed a rash around my ankles, just above my socks. I hadn’t noticed it until Pete pointed it out. It didn’t hurt, wasn’t itchy, wasn’t hot so we decided to keep an eye on it. When the redness started to spread up my leg I thought I’d better see a doctor or something and mentioned it to Sergio. He took Pete and me down to the only pharmacy open in town and translated for us. The pharmacist took one look and told us that sort of thing happens to tourists. They do a lot of walking in a hot climate. We’d been using a cortisone cream we’d brought with us. She said that’s what she would have prescribed. So there you go.

 

The rash is spreading

Something to be aware of if you’re doing a lot of climbing and walking in a hot climate you might get something like this. It has faded away over time.

The Cinque Terre from the sea

A sunny Monterosso

On a beautiful day we took the train back to Monterosso and walked down from the station to find a ticket office for the ferry – and, of course, had to queue. We did manage to get near the front, though.

Tickets purchased, we mooched around until it was time to leave. It was a very different place to the one we’d visited a few days before. We passed by a long line of people filling the pavement just above the beach – and it finally dawned on us that they were waiting to pay to go to the beach. You hire one of those umbrellas and a beach lounge for however long. Pay! To go to the beach! Jeez. Further along the markets were in full swing, offering clothes, souvenirs and food. We settled for a cup of coffee in the same little park near the square where we’d gone on our previous visit. This time the sun was shining and the umbrellas were out. And I found a statue of the great Italian hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi. There’s one of him in the park near the port at La Spezia, too. An interesting man. For years I’d thought he’d landed somewhere to rescue his wife but that was dead wrong. Anita Garibaldi didn’t need rescuing. She was quite a lady.

Ferry patrons coming and going

As soon as you see a ferry come in you understand why the service is absolutely dependent on the weather. There’s no place for the quite large boats to tie up. The skipper brings the boat in nose first, they drop a couple of ropes from the bow mainly for show and they roll a ramp out the front onto the stone wharf. Everybody files off, then everybody files on, while all the time the skipper holds the vessel in place with the engines.

Another packed ferry goes in as we pull out

The trip itself is gorgeous. You get to see the majestic scenery and the way the villages settle on the hills like limpets. Roads are carried over deep valleys on viaducts and the railway was carved through the hills. Much of the track is in tunnels. The ferry stops at Vernazza, but not at Corniglia, which is too far from the water, going onto Manarola, and Riomaggiore before it stops at Portovenere. We got a lovely view of Portovenere from the water as the ferry came in.

Vernazza

Corniglia. The ferry doesn’t stop here

Manarola

A long shot showing the train at right

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore. You can almost see up the main street

Note the viaduct, the ‘docked’ ferry and the railway

We noticed this collection of little buildings. Is a new Cinque Terre village being grown?

Portovenere

We had an hour and a half to wait before we caught another ferry to La Spezia. No prizes for guessing why we didn’t even consider catching a bus. We went for a stroll and then found a place to drink coffee and watch the people doing their thing. It was… shall we say entertaining watching three boats unloading and loading passengers for the Cinque Terre. I was so glad we weren’t in that mix. Our boat to La Spezia wasn’t packed and we enjoyed the ride past the Italian naval base and the posh houses overlooking the water.

Chaos as the toursits push and shove

For our last night in La Spezia we opted to go up market. We’d found food service in the town’s pizzerias was pretty bloody ordinary. One evening Pete’s ‘appetiser’ arrived a nanosecond before the main course, and the ‘appetiser’ was bigger than the main. The following evening, having taken our order, the girl came back to tell Sandy they’d run out of ravioli. Our food came, but not Sandy’s. Meanwhile, we watched plates of food being delivered out of another door to the outside patrons. Sandy’s food came when we’d all finished ours. But at least we weren’t charged for it.

The Ristorante Roma was directly opposite our hotel. We knew it would be more expensive, but the cost wasn’t exorbitant, the service was impeccable and the food lovely. We finished the evening with a complimentary glass of limoncello or agricanto. Agricanto is yummy, yummy stuff. Morello cherries and almonds in a drink. Check it out here.

That’s it for the Cinque Terre. In my opinion they’re overrated. They’re typical Italian villages perched in easily defendable locations. We’ll be seeing quite a few more as we tour Tuscany. Their charm is because they’re near the sea – and because they’re colourful. Given my choice, I’d pick Portovenere. But I will acknowledge that the Cinque Terre are best appreciated by younger, fitter people who can handle the steep climbs and the narrow passages. And the crush of too many people.

Next time we take the trains to Tuscany.

 

Fun on Assumption Day

La Spezia, Portovenere and the Cinque Terre. The ferries pass between Portovenere and The island of Palmaria to go to the Cinque Terre

We decided to go to Portovenere for the Assumption Day holiday on 15th August (big deal in Italy). Apparently it’s the day the body of Mary, Mother of Jesus was raised to Heaven. You can see on the map Portovenere is at the entrance to the Bay of Poets and it’s a popular holiday destination – as well as a place to catch ferries to the Cinque Terre.

We bought return bus tickets from a shop and hopped onto a very crowded bus, wriggling our way through the passengers standing near the front to the middle area where there was a bit more space. In fact, Sandy and I snared seats when a couple of people alighted but the boys stood in the crowd. A few stops later three uniformed men (one carrying a sidearm) came on board through the centre doors. We gathered one was a ticket inspector, checking tickets of a couple of people in the immediate vicinity. Then all three zeroed in on us. Col and Pete produced tickets, they took a look and we got the shock-horror treatment. It took us a while to understand we’d done something wrong, because they spoke little English and we spoke even less Italian but we gathered we should have validated the tickets in one of the two machines located at the front and rear of the bus. We hadn’t seen a validation machine because of the crush of people. We apologised and tried to explain that we didn’t know, nobody had told us the tickets had to be validated, we were Australian tourists and we’d never been on a bus in Italy before, but they weren’t having any. Everybody else (they insisted) had validated – just not you four.

Things started to get ugly. The man with the gun became aggressive, leaning at us and jabbing his finger. “Papers.”

It took us a few moments to realise he wanted ID, but we weren’t quick enough for him.

“Public Officer,” he shouted, jabbing his finger at each of us. “Papers. Four. Now.”

Sandy and I had no ID on us. We had photocopies of our passports but they were in the hotel (lesson learned). Pete and Col produced their Australian driver’s licences. We all felt threatened over what was a trivial offence. I was starting to have visions of being dragged off the bus and being banged up in an Italian police station. At least there was an Australian embassy in Rome. Hopefully they weren’t on holiday.

About then an Australian on the bus intervened in fluent Italian, explaining we were tourists and didn’t know. They calmed down a little, but they weren’t shifting their position, telling her with this crowd of people watching, they would have to fine us or risk losing their jobs. That would be 35 Euros. Each. Now. That’s about $AU57 each. The tickets had cost 3 Euros each. This had suddenly become an expensive bus trip. Col didn’t have that much cash on him, but they accepted credit cards. Pete was reluctant to give them a card so he paid cash. 140 Euros. Not bad for a few minutes’ work. We were given receipts but I had to wonder if that money ended up in the public coffers. A bit like the bed tax at the hotel in Milan.

We found out later that we could have deferred the payment, which would attract a higher fine but given us more time, but that option was not offered. Discussing the matter later, we all wondered if the bus driver had alerted the inspectors about the elderly tourists who hadn’t used his validation machine. The men definitely targeted us, showing only the most cursory interest in the other passengers. We were certainly not the only ones to have been treated like this. Here’s another tourist’s story. And here’s another.

The whole episode left a decidedly sour taste in the mouth.

However.

It was a beautiful day and Portovenere is gorgeous. We also went on a fifty-minute boat ride around the three islands clustered nearby. Here are some pictures.

Portovenere from the quay

The church on the point. On the way up you pass by Byron’s grotto

Narrow shopping streets and steep slopes – just like Cinque Terre

The church from the sea. That’s Palmaria (popular beach destination) on the right with the Apennine Mountains in the distance

The town from the sea. Note the castle strggling up the hills. There were forts on all the islands, too.

Mary stands guard on a reef with Italy behind her.

The islands boast some amazing coastlines, some of which have been mined. There are also many fortifications dating back to WW2, of course – but doubtless a lot further back than that. In the above photo you can see a regular arch which was probably a gun enplacement, and further along, a pill box.

Col and Pete both had some fun with Italian toilets. Pete set off into the underworld, following a maze of passages until he finally went up a few steps and found the right place. When Col tried the same place, there was a queue, so he asked the café proprietor if he could use their toilet. That was fine until he found he was locked in and had to bang on the door until somebody let him out.

We caught the bus back and carefully validated our tickets as we got on. We kept an eye on the passengers as they got on. About half of them didn’t validate their tickets. The bus back was nowhere near as crowded. We expected it to take the same basic route as the one we’d caught – but it didn’t. It came within shouting distance of the station, where we should probably have alighted, then headed off out of town and into the hills. In light of our previous experience we were getting a tad worried. We asked one young woman who spoke a modicum of English if the bus went back to town. She said yes, but explained it would stop at a terminus first.

Oh shit. Would our tickets cover us? What if another Public Officer came on board? Had the ticket’s time limit expired? Should we buy another ticket? We held our nerve until we got into areas in La Spezia that we recognised. From there, Col, Sandy, and I couldn’t stand it anymore and walked the rest of the way, passing through a deserted city. Assumption Day is BIG in Italy. The shops and restaurants were closed and wouldn’t open until after 7pm. But we did buy a gelato each. That was nice.

We had an early dinner and went off to bed. Tomorrow we would avoid buses at all costs and catch a train to Monterosso, where we would catch a ferry back to La Spezia so we could see the villages from the sea.