Friday, 31 July 2009

A Journey to the Birthplace of the Olympics

Jules and I were quite excited about visiting the ancient site of Olympia during our Mediterranean cruise. For many years we had viewed scenes on TV of maidens in classical Greek garb catching the rays of the sun to light the famed Olympic torch. Having been the site of the original Olympic games in ancient times, by tradition this location has always been the place where this global sporting event was launched every four years. We docked in the tiny town of Katakolon and were quite surprised to find that Olympia is actually 45 minutes away by train. We arrived at the small town of Olympia with its pretty little railway station, renovated especially for the tourists, with the realisation that this ancient site is quite isolated. However, as you enter the historic site itself there is an immediate sense of its cultural significance. This is a sacred location (after all, the Olympics was originally a religious event), where some of the greatest athletic events were born at around 700 years BC. We walked freely around the ruins that spoke of a civilisation long disappeared with its various temples to the Greek Gods and Grecian pillars that surrounded once grand buildings. Eventually we made our way toward the site of the very first Olympic stadium, which is remarkably humble by modern day standards. I was tempted to run a quick lap around the track, but as it was a very hot time of the year, just stepping onto the track was quite enough. As you walk through the arched entrance way you can imagine the scene of the first Olympics with cheering crowds watching running, javelin, discuss and other events, while athletes competed for the glory of victory and a simple olive wreath. These were simpler times that seem a far cry from the multi-billion dollar event the Olympics is today!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Afternoon in a Greek Taverna

For the final leg of our Greek odyssey we spent a little time in bustling Corfu. We were aware that this is a favourite tourist destination and could immediately see why. The township sits on an island off the north west coast of Greece and is particularly picturesque with its steep rolling hills that drop straight into a clear blue ocean. Being an important strategic location for ancient battles, it is dotted with early fortifications that are perched high in the hills and provide wonderful views of the undulating coastline. Within the old town itself there is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets crammed with tourist shops and eateries. It was here that Jules and I would begin our much anticipated search for an authentic Greek meal… something that eluded us so far, due to our busy sightseeing schedule. We were being very particular about our choice of venue as we looked for the freshest seafood we could possibly find (no frozen food for us). Eventually we found an accommodating owner who assured us that his fish was fresh off the boat today. Taking him on his word we sat down in a comfortable alfresco spot that provided a view of the harbour. Clearly the owner was determined to backup his word with actual proof, as within minutes he came running over with a massive platter of assorted fresh fish and seafood to meet our approval. He had certainly proved his point and we settled down to the delicious Greek meal of calamari, sardines, Greek salad, cold Greek beers and Greek coffee…an authentic lunch to remember! At that point we reflected on how lucky Australia was to have had such an influx of Greek migrants during the 50’s and 60’s and how much they had truly influenced our taste for food. We also realised that the Greek experience is not just about it’s ancient history, scenic beauty and beautiful waters, which are all in abundance, but it is very much about the simplicity of their lifestyle … good food, drink and company, shared in a climate that is not too dissimilar to home.

Tough Trail to the Acropolis

Continuing the Greek leg of our cruise of the Mediterranean, we awoke to see the amazing sight of Athens coming into view. It is so different to what we had imagined… very large and very white! There seemed to be hardly any greenery in the city itself with a mass of white washed buildings from the shore to the mountains. As we looked toward the mountains in the distance we could see the unmistakable sight of the Acropolis, which is of course the ‘must see’ tourist attraction of this great city. While the other ‘cruisers’ chose to travel there by coach and taxi, Jules and I decided to mix it with the locals and opt for the train (Jules is the master of railway systems). While others were stuck in a monster Greek traffic jam, we made our way up the mountain within 45 minutes after leaving the ship. We naively imagined that we would be the only ones up there when we reach the top…boy, were we wrong! Of course people come from all parts of the world to see this great monument and the pilgrimage begins very early. Weaving our way past camera-laden tourists, speaking a myriad of languages, we gradually made our way to the top. The scene was almost biblical in scale, as the massive crowd clung to the ruins in an attempt to get a view of the iconic Parthenon. Attendants encouraged us to move along and resist the temptation to take photos, which would inevitably slow down the procession. We eventually made it, but with a huge crowd kicking up ancient dust and combining it with a brisk warm breeze, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. We took a moment to catch our breath and have a drink of water and for a moment we were tempted to just head straight back down. This was not at all what we imagined! I eventually found a relatively quiet spot to pull out the sketchbook, only to be soon invaded by tourists who were buzzing around me to see what I was drawing. Eventually, with dust in our eyes and our hats blowing off, we gave up and headed back down. The Parthenon certainly looked as picturesque as you would imagine, but the postcards just don’t take into account the mass of people that come with it. An hour later, a little less hassled, we found ourselves walking the picturesque streets of the old town of Athens. Feeling hot, dry and dusty, we looked up toward the ancient mountain and reflected upon our experience. We both agreed that it was great to see it in the flesh, but we couldn’t help think that in the height of summer, the Acropolis was tourism out of control!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Bargain Bazaar of Kusadasi

Our early morning arrival to the coastline of Turkey revealed a rocky landscape of spartan low lying hills that ran down to the sea. Nestled along the shore was the resort town of Kusadasi, renowned for it’s sun drenched beaches and unique shopping experiences. Over the years the town has established itself as a regular stop over for cruise ships, so naturally enough the local traders were well prepared for the influx of visitors that would invade the township ready to spend.

Jules and I had been reliably informed by our ships company that this was indeed the place where bargains were to be had and that if we were prepared to ‘haggle’ we would come away with some exceptionally good deals. Apparently bartering was such a tradition in this part of the world that refusing to negotiate on price was tantamount to an insult. It was also suggested that prices would be coming thick and fast in the crowded bazaars of Kusadasi, so the best strategy would be to play it cool by at first ignoring the various banter and enticements being thrown at you. If we were seriously interested, we should begin by offering around 30% of the original asking price, which would in turn trigger some serious negotiations and if we played are cards right, it would eventually result in us paying around half price.

Armed with this information we headed ashore, although our pre-embarkation pep talk had not quite prepared us for the consumer assault that we were about to experience. As we headed along the lanes, traders would bolt from their shops following us down the road quizzing us about our obvious need for all manner of rugs, clothing, jewelry, watches or souvenirs. It was all done in relatively good humor, but it was nonetheless quite intimidating and rather than luring us into their shop, it had the opposite effect as we picked up our pace to get away. Eventually we settled into the atmosphere of the bazaar and began to purchase a few things, mindful that any brand names we were buying would generally be fake. In fact we both laughed when passing one very honest watch shop that proudly displayed the sign ‘genuine fakes here', which seemed indicative of much of what was for sale throughout the market.

Having felt somewhat victorious from our bargaining (well, we thought so anyway) we headed back to the ship slightly exhausted. Not only had we negotiated on every item purchased, but also endured the constant verbal barrage from the various traders who were determined to have us reach even deeper into our pockets. This was certainly no place for casual browsing, but rather a shopping experience that had developed into a battle of wits and endurance that we were both happy to have survived.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Bathing in the Waters of Crete

Many years ago, when Jules and I first met and I started to visit her house, it was clear that Greek culture figured prominently in the life of her family. Not that her family was Greek but anyone entering the house for the first time could have easily been mistaken. Her mother was going through her ‘Greek phase’ after just returning from a holiday to Athens and the Greek Islands. Greek bazuki music would be constantly playing on the stereo, while Jules’ mum would be in the kitchen cooking Moussaka, Dolmades or some other Greek delicacies. The country had made such an impression on her and in turn she had planted a seed in Jules and later myself, so that one day we would have to visit and experience it for ourselves. The opportunity was now here, all be it thirty years later, as we embarked upon a cruise around the Mediterranean. One of our first ports of call was on the legendary island of Crete, arriving on a beautifully warm day in July. Our ship docked in the picturesque little town of Agios Nikolaos and it’s not too long before we are down the gangplank and wandering the streets. We are so impressed with the many cafes that line the harbour and it’s simply too hot to go further without enjoying the local hospitality. As we sat sipping our drinks we looked out toward the ocean and became increasingly drawn to the brilliant blue waters. However, just one catch…neither of us had bathers! Having departed from England, we had simply forgotten what warm weather was and had neglected to buy some. It was too hot to go looking now! Not deterred, we drifted down to the rocky shore and away from the tourist spots for what we thought might be ‘a quick paddle’, but after noticing the isolation of the spot we had chosen it wasn’t too long before we were stripped down to our undies and hopping in! Well, I simply can’t describe how clear, cool and wonderful that swim was! We spent quite a while just bobbing up and down in the crystal clear waters, watching the boats sail by. I sat on a rock and sketched and then after a while we wandered back into town for yet another refreshing drink. Not surprisingly it wasn’t too long before we were back to the same spot (still without bathers) to do it all again. The simple pleasure of that day was a great introduction to the Greek Islands.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Devon and Cornwall Road Trip

It was well over twenty years ago, during a stint of living in the UK, that Jules and I, with our four year old son David, bundled ourselves into a very small red hire car and headed south from London towards Devon and Cornwall. It was the summer of 1988 and while being typically grey, there were a few special days where the sun managed to peep through to shed its light on this glorious part of England. For years we carried with us pleasant memories of rolling hills, narrow laneways, country B&B’s and seaside villages complete with the distinctive sound of seagulls flying overhead. In fact we were so keen to relive the experience again that we planned a five-day road trip that would retrace much of that journey. So in the height of yet another English summer and despite grey clouds brewing on the horizon, we took off expectantly down the M5. As had been the case all those years ago, no particular destination was planned and no accommodation booked. We would simply follow the road and rely on our AA map and Jules’ fabulous navigation skills to get us there.

We arrived in Lyme Regis by late afternoon as the first showers began to fall and although it seemed quite a nice little coastal town, like most of the holiday makers on the beach our enthusiasm was being somewhat dampened by the weather. Nonetheless, Jules had read about a particularly good restaurant that was well worth visiting, so we decided to stay the night. It was at this point that we realized that our cunning plan to simply drop into popular seaside towns in summer in the hope of finding somewhere to stay might have a serious flaw. After several phone calls from the tourist office we finally managed to secure something, but suffice it to say it made ‘Fawlty Towers’ look like the Hilton Hotel and we hit the road very early the next day.

Continuing our journey south, the rain began picking up where it had left off the night before. With the wind screen wipers working overtime, we eventually reached the quiet inlet of Noss Mayo and enjoyed a hot chocolate in the local pub that overlook this tranquil fishing town. We soon pressed on to the historic town of Plymouth where I couldn’t help but think of the many convicts who once boarded ships here for a one-way passage to sunny Australia … there could have been far worse punishments I’m sure! As we moved down the coast towards the picturesque towns of Looe and Polperro, fond memories came flooding back, as this region was our favorite. These are quintessential fishing villages that have barely changed for centuries, if you discount the fleets of tourist buses that visit each town daily. With the rain driving down, we looked for brighter horizons on the west coast and in particular in the town of Padstow, which has become somewhat of a tourist Mecca due to it being the home of celebrity chef Rick Stein. In fact this charming fishing town could well be renamed ‘Rick Steinville’, as we counted at least five business establishments baring his name. Of course his celebrity has done much for local economy and in particular the demand for accommodation, as we found out first hand when we tried to find a room for the night. This time there was not a bed to be had and so late in the evening, we drove out of town only to find a very remote hotel somewhere near Newquay ... our B&B plan was not working well!

The next day we backtracked through Padstow and continued north to the mystical town of Tintegal. The ruined castle here is believed to have provided the inspiration for Camelot, King Arthur and the knights of the round table. After a lengthy drive, we arrived at the rugged cliffs to view what is said to be the ruins of the ancient castle. To be honest the few remaining stones bare only a passing resemblance to a castle and there is considerable reliance upon the public’s imagination to create the medieval scene. However what can be guaranteed is plenty of wind! This, combined with on going rain, meant for pretty bleak conditions and this was the height of summer!! Feeling cold and wet, we settled for the best attraction to be found in Tintegal, the genuine Cornish pasty!

Over the next few days we would take a slow and meandering course back toward Bournemouth. We would head through the Dartmore National Park, staying in the quaint town of Mortenhampstead, where following the advice of our B&B host, we ventured south to Salcombe. This was one of the nicest surprises of our road trip, as it is a charming little fishing town with a lovely outlook. Skirting the outskirts of Torquay, we headed toward Exeter, then onto the seaside town of Budleigh Salterton, which was again quite nice despite the drizzle. In the end, the sun did make the occasional appearance offering us hope of brighter days, but it seemed that this time we were destined to experience a typical English summer. Our road trip was not quite what we had imagined, nor did it totally recapture the fond memories of all those years ago. If we can take anything from this trip it is that we must always treasure those wonderful moments of travel, as they are often so difficult to ever recapture again.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

In Respect for Lawrence

When I was a child, one of our family treats was going to the drive-in theatre and one of the first films I can remember seeing in the 1960’s was David Leane’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was an epic film that conjured up visions on the big screen of a culture and landscape that I had never seen before. It certainly made a huge impression on me and later it would add to a wider appreciation of history that continued to stay with me into adulthood. As far as T.E. Lawrence was concerned, I wanted to learn more about the man and his legend and over the years I read several books and watched documentaries about his life. So when we were in Bournemouth (UK) to visit Jules’ aunty and uncle, I was well aware that this was close to the county were Lawrence had spent his final days. Just a short drive into Dorset would allow us an opportunity to visit his home called ‘Cloud Hill’, a remote cottage not too far from Bovington Camp, the army base where he served his final commission. When you approach ‘Cloud Hill’ you immediately learn something about the man. Firstly, judging by the amount of people visiting his home on any given day, he is clearly still held in high esteem by the people of England. Secondly, looking at the size of the house as you walk toward it, you sense that he lived a humble existence despite the fame and adulation he received during his lifetime. This is re-affirmed when you enter his tiny house, which he purchased in 1925 and where he lived without power and limited water supply for ten years. The interior is left almost exactly as it was on the day of his motorbike accident, that eventually took his life. His personal library and gramophone records remain in tact, as does the sleeping bag that was reserved for his guests and which was stolen shortly after the release of the movie, only to be returned again in 2001. It was certainly an austere existence, which in many ways reflected his complex personality. Later Jules and I visited his grave in the tiny town of Morton, which was as expected, a very understated monument to his life. The size of the grave gave an indication of his small stature, which was around 5’5” and somehow belied the larger than life status he had held in life as a result of his fame. Although he had sought obscurity after his desert adventures, it was evident that he still carried some political weight, with Winston Churchill attending his funeral in 1935. As we stood alone in the tiny graveyard paying our respects, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the path that had led us all the way there from Australia. For a moment my mind flitted back to that drive-in movie all those years ago.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Legendary Leaning Tower

After catching a train from Florence, we headed toward Pisa tohave a look at arguably one of the worlds most famous architectural triumphs and/or disasters. It is the bell tower for Pisa’s Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo), better known as ‘The Leaning Tower of Pisa’. This is one of the great iconic buildings of Italy that continues to attract tourists to this major Tuscan city. To be honest, Jules and I generally found the city itself a little uninspiring in comparison to Florence, but we had come here on a mission and it wasn’t too long before we began to follow the tourist trail to the cathedral. As we discovered, the Pisa bell tower is just one of a collection of magnificent buildings that make up the cathedral complex called Campo dei Miracoli, which means ‘Field of Miracles’. It is a splendid collection of classic Roman architecture, constructed of white marble that includes not only the familiar leaning tower, but also a magnificent basilica and domed cathedral. Even without its unusual lean, the tower itself would have still attracted visitors over the years, as it a wonderful piece of medieval architectural design. With its unique circular construction and ornate marble arches, it stands eight storeys high and must have originally been regarded as a building triumph. However, so prominent has the lean become that over the years this feature has tended to over shadow its significance as one of the great buildings of the era. From what we learnt, the tower appeared to reveal its structural problems right from the very start. Way back in the 1100’s it became obvious during construction that the ground was beginning to subside and soon the characteristic lean was becoming obvious. By the time of the latest restoration (1990) it had developed into a lean of around 10 degrees, which was then corrected to around 5 degrees in order to prevent it from literally falling over. Today the restoration continues and on the day we were there we could clearly see the workman perched up high, precariously working on the arches. Looking much like a giant white wedding cake that has been accidentally bumped, the tower took pride of place, set starkly against the manicured green lawns. Jules and I particularly enjoying watching the hoards of tourists having their photographs taken, standing in the foreground and posing as if to be pushing the tower upright. There must be millions of these photos in albums throughout the world and I must confess that we took one or two ourselves. Eventually, we sat back on the grass in the warm sun eating pizza in Pisa and just admired the scene. We both agreed that despite or maybe because of it’s lean, the tower was every bit as impressive as anything we had seen in Italy so far.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Looking for ‘David’

One of the major things that had attracted us to Florence was its overwhelming connection to art and in particular the Italian Renaissance. In the centre of that artistic revolution was the master artist himself, Michelangelo Buonarroti. He had spent much of his early life in this great city and as his fame grew, he spent most of his life sharing his time between the Medici family in Florence and the papacy in Rome. Therefore, not surprisingly there remains much evidence of his time here, with many works in the Uffizi and in other parts of the city. However, by far the most notable is his statue of ‘David’, which was completed in the early 1500’s and has stamped its visual identity on Florence ever since. Like thousands of others, we were here to track him down and it was not long after arriving that his emblazoned image could be seen everywhere on all manner of tacky souvenirs. This iconic statue originally stood in the Piazza Della Signoria, until its true artistic and cultural significance was fully recognized in the late 1800’s when it was whisked away to a safe haven indoors. Today a replica stands in its place, but nonetheless Jules and I would still spend many an hour gazing admiringly at it from any number of nearby cafés and restaurants in the square. It is such a recognizable and iconic statue that has been so often reproduced to the point of cliché, but it is still very rewarding to see even a reproduction in its original location. However, like all the other tourists we were eventually drawn to join the long queues to view the original at the Academia Gallery. After finally getting through the doors, we made our way past several incomplete Michelangelo carvings showing us just how the master set about ‘releasing his figures from the stone’. However, for many the sight of the famed naked figure of ‘David’ was just too irresistible, as they stormed by other works in order to push their way through for a closer look at the large iconic statue. I must say that it was all a bit manic, as tourists jostled for position in an attempt to take photographs, much to the protesting voices of the many security guards. They tried in vein, but just as they managed to get the ‘no photos’ message across, another wave of tourists would enter the room and the excited protests would begin again. In the end we resisted the temptation to pull out our camera for a sneaky shot and while ‘David’ was wonderful to see, there was much to be said for simply enjoying the reproduction in the open air. After all, most people jostling for a view in the enclosed space couldn’t really tell the difference anyway. A much more relaxed viewing of Renaissance art was at the Basilica Santa Croce where the great artist was finally entombed alongside the astronomer Galileo and several other illustrious Italians. This is a beautiful old church dating back to 1200AD with a distinctive white marble façade that is presented in a classic grid-like format. Under great vaulted ceilings there were some incredible works on display, including a sculpture that I particularly liked by Pio Fedi, which is believed to have been the inspiration for the ‘Statue of Liberty’. Beyond the basilica itself there were other interesting galleries to view also, including a contemporary exhibition by the painter Santo Tomaino, surprisingly based upon the world of boxing. While slightly out of context, it reflected the diversity and ongoing love of art in Florence. Yet there is little doubt that Michelangelo’s ‘David’ will always remain the jewel in the crown; the one piece that tourists seek out and the one that will always be inexplicably linked with Florence.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Fabulous Florence

Florence must be one of the great cities of the world! Much like Rome, it has managed to strike a happy balance between heritage, culture and modernity. By maintaining many of its original buildings, it has managed to hold onto its history and distinct Italian character, factors that continue to attract visitors from throughout the world to enjoy both its atmosphere and its art. With that in mind, Jules and I arrived into Florence by squeezing on to a crowded bus from Siena and by the time fell out of the doorway, we are well and truly ready to stretch our legs and begin to explore all that this historical city had to offer. We begin by wandering around the Piazza San Larenzo with its endless rows of market stalls and magnificent produce market. With so much to buy and sample, I had no doubt that this would be a spot that we would return to often. We then moved on to view our first ‘great’ building, the ‘Duomo’, which has dominated the skyline since the 1400’s with it’s distinctive oversized dome and equally impressive tower. Having just undergone extensive restoration, the white, green and pick marble exterior looked quite magnificent in the sun and provided us with an insight into the glory days of a city that justifiably brought about the Italian renaissance. A short walk away is another of Florence’s iconic structures that continues to span the River Arno as it has done since Roman times. Ponte Vecchio is an ancient stone and wooden bridge that has traditionally housed all manner of traders under its porticos and these days jewelers and goldsmiths seem to have a monopoly on the site. It’s possibly a little too rich for these two Aussie globetrotters so we move further a field. A large gelato is probably more to our budget, so we wander past the Uffizi (Florence’s most famous art museum) and through the Piazza Vecchio (with it’s numerous classical statues) to find a sunny spot in Piazza Della Republica. This is the site of the ancient Roman forum and is recognizable by its classic architectural style dominated by the use of classic archways. Today it’s a haven for tourists who enjoy the numerous restaurants and cafés that surround the square. In fact the area lured us back later to further enjoy the atmosphere and a nice meal in the cool of the evening. Similarly the Piazza Della Signoria would become regular place to eat, drink and bask in the culture of Florence. We simply loved the various piazzas and wandering around the many narrow laneways. However, we were keen to gain a wider appreciation of the city, so one day we joined a cycling tour that would take us twenty five kilometers to the outskirts of the city and back through it’s suburbs. Beginning early in the morning and starting high in the hills at an ancient monastery, we were able to admire the city from afar before tackling the treacherous winding roads that would lead us back toward the city. As we dodge cars and pass the numerous fields of grapes and olives, we could occasionally catch quick glimpses of Florence through the trees. The scene was like something from a postcard and very picturesque indeed. However, photos were few and far between as we were just concentrating on surviving the steep downhill run. Back in the city we were happy to hand back our bikes, grateful for the experience, but quite happy to continue to explore the city in a slow and relaxed manner. There is still so much to see and admire in this great city and a slow walking pace will suit us both from now on.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Winning at the Palio

A bonus to our trip to Siena was that it coincided with the annual running of the famous ‘Palio’ horse race that is run in the Piazza Il Campo. This traditional event attracts thousands of tourists from around the world to witness the colourful festivities that culminate in the big race. During the days before, the atmosphere continues to build with decorative banners adorning the narrow lanes, identifying the 17 distinct areas within the city, which are referred to as a ‘contrada’. Each contrada has it’s own distinctive colour combination and animal symbol that are worn by the bare back riders. The Palio is steeped in tradition which is at times confusing to the outsider, but clearly the event is taken very seriously by the locals who continue to contribute money throughout the year to procure the best horse and the best rider for the event. As a tourist, you have no choice but to get involved by selecting a contrada to support and buy a coloured scarf to represent the horse you will be cheering on during the race. Jules had taken a liking to the ‘Contrada della Tartuca’, which is represented by the tortoise. She had figured that with a mascot like that, they probably needed all the support they could muster. On the big day we headed toward the piazza to the droning of the tower bell. In the laneways, each contrada had begun their own procession that consisted of a range of characters in colourful costumes and even suits of armour, marching along on foot and on horseback. Leading the way were flag bearers who spasmodically stopped to throw their flags high into the air receiving applause from the crowd as they caught them upon there descent. As they marched, they were followed by an ever growing group of supporters, each wearing the appropriate contrada scarf. Eventually each group filed into the piazza for a lengthy grand procession accompanied by the deafening sound of trumpets. After several hours of posturing, the horses and riders appeared on the track and it first appears that the race would be run and won in minutes…not so. It would in fact be quite a while before the actual race would begin. There would be several hours of jockeying for position, bargaining amongst themselves (riders have been known to be bought off at the start line by competitors), hitting each other with their whips, blocking the start and enduring numerous false starts before it would begin. As a result of the numerous delays, the day was slowly starting to turn to night and it was 9.00pm before the shot gun blast could be heard around the piazza and the actual race is underway. After two furious laps around the piazza, it is all over and to our amazement Tartuca was the victor! We had backed the winner and we were as just excited as the locals, jumping up and down and waving our scarf. The crowd quickly flocked onto the clay track to surround the winning rider and lifting him high onto their shoulders. Other supporters were clearly not happy, claiming yet another false start , but it was official, the tortoise would be awarded with the coveted painted silk banner. Celebrations would continue well into the night, but for us, after several hours in the hot sun, reflecting on the victory over a glass of red wine in our little farm house would be quite enough.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Timeless Tuscany

During our stay in Siena we had organised to hire a car in order to venture out into the Tuscan countryside. From our farmhouse high on the hill, we could view across wheat fields and the vineyards dotted with Cyprus Pines and wondered what might be beyond. As we headed out gingerly, we were mindful of driving on, what was to us, the wrong side of the road. We took our time along the picturesque winding roads, constantly being passed by impatient Italian drivers who were unaware that novice European drivers were at the wheel. As we looked around, we were reminded of the similarities the landscape had with parts of Australia. After all, it was the height of summer and the fields had taken on that familiar straw coloured appearance that is so familiar at home. We first made our way along winding roads to the hilltop town of Montalcino. Towns such as this are characteristic of the region and usually consist of a large central fortress surrounded by the sort of picturesque village that you would see in a coffee table book of Italy. The day we visited it was relatively quiet and we were able to wander around the enchanting narrow laneways almost entirely on our own. This was certainly not the case with the more famous village of San Gimignano. The tourists had certainly discovered this historic medieval town characterised by it’s many distinctive towers. After a pleasant drive through the Elsa Valley, we hit the outskirts of the town to spend a considerable amount of time simply trying to find a car park. Eventually we secured one down the hill and on the edge of town making for a lengthy uphill walk towards the central piazza. As we made our way through the narrow cobbled laneways, we dodged the many visitors who daily make their way to this popular spot on the numerous tourist coaches. The town is buzzing with a wide variety of trinket shops and of course there was plenty of food to be had from the various rustic café’s. We sit for a while on the steps of the cathedral to do a little drawing while soaking up the atmosphere, before Jules spots a shop claiming to sell ‘the worlds best gelato. We are always wary of such claims, but it seems that the shop had indeed won an award at some kind of international competition for gelato makers and as we found out, it was indeed very very good gelato! Over the next few days we would meander the countryside, passing through little villages like Castellina, Corsignano and San Giovanno, enjoying the odd slice of pizza, porketta sandwich or gelato. We adored the vineyard area of Chianti, famous for it’s light red wine and particularly enjoyed the little town of Radda with it’s commanding views of the whole region. We were amazed at what we could see within a reasonably condensed area. There was many a classic scenic montage to be viewed and the sense that Tuscany had not radically changed much over the passing years.