Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Italian holiday 2016

December 24, 2018

Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September

Got to the airport efficiently in time and checked in, boarded and waited and waited, finally departing two hours late for Hong Kong. Fortunately the delay was not a problem, just meant a shorter stopover, but at the far back of the aircraft it was a very ordinary flight. Not sure what on earth travel agent Angela was doing, as we booked the flights nine months ago!


The next flight was better from HK to Rome, but we were pretty shot when we arrived after about 36 hours. The train from the airport to Rome Termini was very quick and meant we had about two and a half hours to kill before the train to Florence, time for a coffee, saltimbocca, shave and a beer. The train was right on time and 90 minutes later we arrived to find our hotel less than five minutes from the station.


The Club Hotel was comfortable and convenient and we had a very welcome shower before heading back to the station for a pizza at the Fratelli Cuore restaurant. After that we walked to the Accademia Gallery to try to see Michelangelo’s David, but the enormous queue meant we had to buy a guided tour and wait for it to begin. The guide was good, but the headsets’ distortion meant it was very hard to understand her. However that was our first significant attraction ticked off – the David is magnificent, especially the original, and well worth seeing. We went back to the hotel and were so tired we went to bed at 7.30 with inevitable results, as both slept but woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep until early morning.


Monday 12th

Having finally got back to sleep, it was frustrating to be woken up by a phone call from NZ about the A&P movie night – someone wanted money back because they hadn’t been able to come on the night and thought they should have been able to use them two weeks later. No way!


After that there was no point trying to sleep again and we had plenty to do, so up for breakfast and the start of the day’s touring. We caught the bus to the Piazzale Michelangelo on the other side of the River Arno, through a very prosperous hill suburb of Florence at the top of a hill with an amazing view back over the city. We then wended our way down through the Rose Garden which was well over its main season, but also had some very witty and interesting sculptures by a Belgian sculptor, Jean Michelle Folons I think, a mixture of cats, dogs, frogs, boats and top hatted figures.


At the bottom of the hill, we found a very old suburb called San Nicolo, with quite a bit of renovation of old buildings happening. There was also a fascinating shop with eccentric timepieces manufactured on site by the clock maker, a young guy called Allesandro Dari. Then we crossed the river to the main part of the city, where we found the Galileo Museum open which was a surprise as we thought all museums were closed on Mondays. After a coffee at a small bar by the museum, we spent a very interesting couple of hours viewing Galileo’s and others’ inventions of telescopes and other amazing sight related pieces of equipment.


We walked from the museum to the Ponte Vecchio which had to be seen, if not much expenditure of time or money devoted to it. After that it was time for lunch which we had at a trattoria with a few tables on the street named after the Via Capacino it was on – very light Caprese salad and prosciutto and melon.


Feeling footsore after the big morning, we decided to hire a bike tour although our guide’s English was fractured and conversation a bit difficult. He showed us round most of the key parts of the centre of Florence including the Orsanmichele Church which used to be a grain store and the outside of the Basilica Di Santa Croce at the end of the Piazza Santa Croce which was once an arena for sporting competitions. At the end of the hour’s tour he dropped us back within five minutes’ walk of the hotel. We went back for a rest followed by dinner round the corner from the hotel, although we decided we didn’t like the look of the recommended restaurant and found another traditional family run trattoria which suited our needs. We had a great risotto, a lasagne and shared a wonderful mixed salad with radicchio and anchovies as well as very acceptable house wine.


Then it was time for another intermittent night’s sleep, interrupted by me going for a wander and locking myself out of the bedroom in nothing but knickers, fortunately able to wake Vanessa up before too long. There was another phone call at 5.15 but we have now learnt we need to turn our phones off at night.


Tuesday 13th

The news had come through by email that our tour of the Uffizi Galleries for this morning had been cancelled without any news about a refund. After breakfast we walked to the Uffizi to find a massive queue and no chance of being able to get in before we had to leave, so we paid for another guided tour.


The guide was really good, but the sheer numbers of people made her job very difficult. She gave us an excellent introduction to medieval art and the transition through Giotto to three-dimensional painting before showing us the further transition to the Renaissance. We saw Michelangelo’s only painting apart from the Sistine Chapel, for which he was paid twice his original asking price, Leonardo’s painting of the Virgin Mary with the use of perspective and Botticelli’s Venus, the most famous works in the Uffizi. Although we could have stayed to look at other areas, there were so many people, it had become a complete bun fight, especially with people insisting on taking selfies with their backs to the painting. Sounding like a couple of grumpy oldies, this trend was the worst development since our last European trip – selfy sticks ought to be banned in art galleries and other public places!


We escaped from the Uffizi and, after an unsuccessful hunt for a particular shoe shop, we walked back to the Basilica Di Santa Croce which Lonely Planet describes in glowing terms as being so beautiful it causes faintness in people, named Stendahlismus after the French author who first experienced it. It was beautiful, simple and restful with a wood beamed ceiling. We walked out through the gardens back into the streets, found somewhere for lunch and walked back to our hotel to pick up suitcases.


We headed back to the station for the 3.30 to Venice which arrived 20 minutes late at nearly 6 pm. We had no idea where to go, but headed towards the taxi sign and found a porter in a high viz vest. He grabbed our bags, took us to buy Vaporetto tickets and took us to the boarding point for the ferry to San Marco, all for 10 Euros plus the tickets. After a half hour ride we arrived at San Marco, again with no idea how to find our hotel, but a porter offered to take us there for. 20 Euros. By this time we had not enough cash and didn’t want to spend it anyway and luckily he gave us instructions I could follow, so after a five minute walk and two bridges we found the Hotel Violino d’Oro.


A quick shower later we were recommended to eat at Vino Vino which proved to be an affordable and good quality place very near the hotel. After dinner it was back to the hotel and a much better night’s sleep, although by this time Vanessa’s cold was making her feel a bit rough.


Wednesday 14th

A slower start to the morning, but Venice seems to start later anyway, although the breakfast room was pretty full when we got there. We wanted to see the Doge’s Palace just off Piazza San Marco and the most efficient way to do this was to buy tickets from the Correr Museum which included several other museums. We spent an hour and a half at the Palace, spending quite a lot of time in the prison which is reached by crossing the Bridge of Sighs as well as seeing all the main rooms of the Palace where various justice committees met to run the Duchy of Venice in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The main hall is enormous, 53 x 25 metres, and has a Tintoretto painting covering the whole of one end.


After lunch we returned to the Correr Museum which is an eclectic combination of period spaces, ranging from Empress Elizabeth or Sissi of the Habsburg dynasty to archaeological findings, Roman busts and statues, coins and ceramics, Venetian armaments and naval history, and a collection of paintings collected by Teodoro Correr who was a rich merchant.


It was a very hot afternoon, San Marco was covered in tourists taking selfies and photos, so it was time to head back to the hotel for a cup of tea and a rest. We then set out to find a restaurant we had spotted on our way past in the morning and, with the help of the map on the phone we found it. Luckily we had a table for two sandwiched between two fellow hotel guests from Seattle and the husband originally from Trieste on one side and a couple from Brussels on the other. It appears the Trattoria Algazettino is a very highly rated and much recommended Venice restaurant, very justifiably as we discovered. Our meal of Caprese salad followed by seafood gnocchi and Venetian style liver with onions was superb, succeeded by free apple tart, grappa and sweet red slightly frizz ante red wine with a packet of pasta to take home. It was a very successful find.


Thursday 15th

Vanessa’s cold was worse in the morning and we took it a bit more slowly after breakfast, but walked to the Accademia Bridge and Gallery where we spent an hour looking at famous Venetian artists’ work – Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Tiepolo and others. At the end of it we had seen as many versions of Mary and the baby Jesus as we could cope with, although beautiful paintings they undoubtedly are.


It was getting greyer outside and started raining while we had coffee, but we carried on to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum where we saw some amazing sculptures (by Henry Moore, Giacometti, Brancusi and others) and paintings by Braque, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Miro and countless others. There was a brilliant cubist painting by Matzinger of a professional cyclist in the Paris – Roubaix road race, giving a great impression of speed and the crowd visible through the cyclist’s head.


We ran into Rob and Rosemary Hargraves who had spent a couple of nights in Venice and were about to leave on a cruise round the coast to Rome. We found a good little osteria just back along the road where we had respectively cuttlefish in black sauce and three versions of baccala smoked and dried cod. After lunch it was racing seriously, so we bought a couple of ponchos and boarded the Vaporetto for Rialto which was seriously overcrowded and wet. We decided to stay on the ferry and complete the round trip via the railway station, boatyards and the outer canal back to San Marco. It had stopped raining by this time and the walk back was seething with tourists, a bit of a shock after a very pleasant day on the other side of the Grand Canal without a selfie stick in sight. Outside our hotel it was absolute bedlam with crowds waiting for gondolas.


We went for dinner soon after 7, to be in time for the Vivaldi concert at the Chiesa San Vidal in the piazza before the Ponte Vecchio starting at 9. We stopped at the Tavernetta Mauricio for marinated anchovies, mussels and clams and cotelette a la Milanese, heading for the concert in good time. However we had completely misconstrued the popularity of the concert which was full! Fortunately after a wait of 15 minutes, they let us in, the last two to make it. The Interpreti Veneziani, five violinists, two cellists and a harpsichord player, gave a lively, beautifully played version of the Four Seasons and some other pieces. It was a great evening, marred by Vanessa leaving her glasses at the church.


Friday 16th

We left the hotel at 8.30 to catch the Vaporetto to the station and made it with plenty of time to spare before the train to Naples. We used a cafe table to write postcards, but there was no hope of being served, so we went to a stand up coffee bar next door which worked perfectly. Then we caught the Naples train and it started raining before Padua and is forecast to rain all the way south.


We went to the dining car to get lunch which at 18 euros including wine was the cheapest meal we had eaten, but it did the job and induced a certain doziness. The Bulgarian family group who talked incessantly must have got off at Rome Termini, but by then I had fallen asleep and only woke up as we slowed down to pass through the outskirts of Naples. We arrived 25 minutes late which wasn’t a problem, but it put us firmly into rush hour, as we found our way to the Garibaldi station for the trip to Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana line. The train was full, standing room only for most of the 35 stops and hour long trip to Sorrento. We took a taxi up the hill to our hotel La Tonnarella with a magnificent view across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius, Pompei and Naples.


It was a brisk 10 minute walk down the hill and another 10 minutes down to the fishing port where we went, me somewhat grumpily, in search of dinner. But at the port we found the Ristorante Azzuria which looked promising and served a delicious seafood ravioli. We soon got into conversation with our neighbours who were from London; Trevor was ex political editor for the Sun and still writes a weekly column and his wife Jacqui was originally from Sydney. We had an entertaining conversation about UK politics and politicians and they also introduced us to a free driving directional app called Waze which has turned out to be a fantastic substitute for GPS at 22 euros a day.


We got a ride up the hill from a helper at the restaurant who also operates a taxi service for clients, but much to my surprise this was the only time we paid for a taxi.


Saturday 17th

We had a late start after the exertions of the previous day, enjoying our breakfast in the dining room with the wonderful views of the bay. Next it was back to the station to catch the train back towards Naples with the objective of stopping at Herculaneum rather than Pompei, as we had read that it was less crowded, but very worth visiting. After getting off at Ercolano Scavi station, we strolled down the Main Street with the entrance to the ruins at the bottom, stopping for a coffee on the way.


After buying our tickets we joined an English speaking tour group at 10 euros each which was well worthwhile, as our guide Maria was both extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Herculaneum which has suffered from lack of investment compared with Pompei until David Packard of Hewlett Packard fame decided a few years ago to take it on as a personal mission. A prime example of the underinvestment is the museum built 40 years ago and never opened because of lack of money to staff it.


Herculaneum was a Roman holiday resort with spacious holiday houses and shops to service the wealthy Romans and the sea, now 400 metres away, used to come to the edge of the town. When Vesuvius erupted in 63 BC, the town was flooded by a tsunami of mud, unlike Pompei which was submerged by volcanic ash. The mud then set fast, preserving the buildings in perfect condition. The town was first discovered in the 18th century when a local resident fell into a hole through which he ended up in the theatre. However a shortage of money has seen it take a lot longer to carry out the excavations.


After lunch we visited the Virtual Archaeological Museum nearby to watch a series of virtual recreations of life in Herculaneum in the first century BC. Then it was back to Sorrento, although not before we witnessed another example of couples getting separated by making a late decision to get on or off the train with the result one half had to carry on to the next station. In the morning we had met a woman who had been separated from her husband who was left on the platform with their luggage and had no phone or money to get in touch with him. Luckily she managed to borrow a phone to get a message to her husband via her daughter and we saw them reunited as our train pulled out.


On the way from the station Vanessa stopped to buy some sun glasses, very stylish leopard spots on the frames. Then we had a drink at a cafe in the middle of town while the sun went down, watching among other excitements a man fall over and hit his nose on the pavement, requiring medical attention and an ambulance. We decided to find somewhere for dinner before walking up the hill to the hotel and found a restaurant in a square down a side street; part way through dinner the heavens opened, but luckily we were under a solid umbrella canopy. By the time we had finished, the rain had cleared for our walk up the hill. However during the night there was a major thunder storm.

Sunday 18th

We planned to catch the bus to Positano after breakfast, but as usual this took a little longer than intended. We obtained an upgrade to a room with a terrace and view for our last night, so needed to pack our bags before heading back to town. We arrived at the bus station and managed to buy tickets to Positano, but the bus was crowded and we squeezed on to stand at the front. Traffic out of Sorrento was very heavy, so the journey took nearly an hour on a very winding road round the coast.


On arrival the driver shouted Positano, finito! We got off and began the walk down the road to the town when the rain started. We stopped for a coffee in a hotel restaurant with a great view, an expensive coffee naturally. Then after the rain stopped we wended our way down steps, past tourist shops to the beach at the bottom. There was nothing of great interest to look at, so not surprisingly we decided to have lunch which was pleasant and expensive as the location suggested. By the time we had finished the rain was threatening again, so back up the hill with a stop at a clothes shop called Vanilla. The stock was on special because of the approaching end of season, so Vanessa was able to find some really good buys.


When we emerged it was really raining, so with some trepidation we joined the bus queue and waited nearly half an hour for the Sorrento bus and used positive thinking and sheer determination to be two of only half a dozen to manage to get on what was already a very full bus. A prick with blue shoes had a violent argument with another would be passenger and the bus driver, before heading off never to be seen again. This may have been the difference between getting on and being left on the side of the road with the other thirty odd unfortunate people.


Soaking wet, although rain jacket and poncho helped, we set off on the return trip and arrived back about 4 pm very relieved if a trifle damp. We stopped to buy provisions on the way back to the hotel, so we could enjoy the evening in our new hotel room, instead of going out again. The view was superb and we enjoyed a very pleasant supper of salami, hard cheese, bread and wine. That night there was an almighty thunder storm, although I am glad to report I slept through it!


Monday 19th

The day of our departure dawned with a couple of uncertainties concerning rental car pick up and buying a SIM card for using the Waze app on the IPad while travelling. We arranged for the car to be delivered to the hotel, just as well as the Hertz franchise had moved and the traffic was virtually at a standstill. After breakfast we set off for the town to buy the SIM card, found the TIM shop open, only to realise we needed a passport. So back up the hill to fetch the passport, testing the ability to send each other text messages, and Vanessa went to buy the SIM card while I waited for the car. We arranged a place for me to pick Vanessa up when ready and the car duly arrived. I then waited and waited, sending a couple of texts without reply, then finally my phone rang. Vanessa had been waiting for 15 minutes, but her texts hadn’t arrived (I got all four of them the next morning), so I was able to start the crawl down the hill and at 11.22 we were on our way.


It took half an hour at least to get out of the town and an hour to hit the autostrada to Salerno, but after that it was all quite simple. We stopped at a motorway cafe for something to eat and carried on our route east to Puglia, arriving in Alberobello at about 4.30 after an uneventful drive of five hours. We found the Rosa dei Trulli with a little difficulty, but by 5 pm we were installed. It was quite a comfortable little unit, but the ladder up to the bedroom looked fairly scary.


Our hostess, Katya, suggested a booking at 8 pm for dinner, on the basis the restaurants feed their staff first and guests afterwards. Anyway we decided to cancel that arrangement and take pot luck in town. We spotted a wine bar on the tourist map which we found quite easily and enjoyed a couple of glasses of a local Verdeca with a board of local cheeses, served by a couple who were passionate about local wines and produce. We then missed one restaurant (it turned out to be closed on Mondays), but found another one nearby.


We got back to the trulli, but the remote wouldn’t open the gates, so we had to press the buzzer to be let in. Once we got to bed in the upstairs bedroom, just under the roof cone, sleep was hard to achieve because the property’s dog spent half the night barking.


Tuesday 20th

It was quite chilly in the morning and rain clouds threatened, but there were croissants, bread, ham and cheese for breakfast which we ate in the small main room. After breakfast we set off on an exploration of small towns in the region, but they were closed for the most part, so after having a coffee in quite a stylish cafe in Putignano which was said to be caught in a time warp after much of the population left after the war, cashing some money and buying tomatoes, grapes and plums from the last stall just closing in the  market in Noci, we felt there was nothing to do but head back for Alberbello for a late lunch.


It was raining intermittently and we went to a restaurant at the southern end of the Main Street, where we had our light lunch talking to a lone Canadian woman from Florida and Nova Scotia about 80, travelling on her own except for her 6lb miniature dog. The duo were setting off the next day for Palermo by coach and ferry which sounded very brave of her.


On return to the trulli, we hung out our washing which had built up and most of it was dry before evening, a great relief. Then we set out on our evening voyage of exploration, including another trip to Paco Wine bar and dinner at Pinacola which had been closed the night before. It was pretty fully booked and we sat out under cover, but with a chilly breeze. Luckily my long trousers were nearly dry, especially after ironing. Dinner was OK, but not a standout, which rather summed up our view of Alberobello. Apart from the wine bar, we found it all a bit lack lustre and too reliant on all the trulli which have made it such an attraction.


Wednesday 21st

Without a huge amount of regret we left after breakfast and the rest of the ironing to our next destination, Lecce, hopefully via Taranto and the coast road to Gallipoli. We drove into Taranto and along the waterfront, but didn’t park or find the Greek ruins, because Waze insisted that we shouldn’t take the coast road and sent us against our wishes directly to Lecce.


On arrival we found roughly where we needed to go and parked so we could get a late lunch, very enjoyable pasta with clams and mussels, much smaller and less rubbery than the New Zealand version. The waiter asked me if we intended to visit the Museo Faggiano which he said was an amazing archaeological museum in the Centro Storico.


So we parked the car near the correct gate, walked to find our B&B and saw the sign for the museum immediately. Julian arrived to check us in and gave us lots of information about Lecce and its restaurants and showed us to our room which was a delightfully bright and clean fresh room with a small terrace overlooking the Via dei Perroni.


Before dinner we wandered up to the Piazza San’Oronzo to have a glass of wine beside the Roman amphitheatre and watch the cars and people go past. We walked back towards our B&B and found the restaurant Julian had recommended which was busy but had space up a slightly rickety staircase. Our dining neighbours engaged us in conversation which led to one of the more amazing discussions we had ever had. Dan and Melanie were from Denver, Colorado about our age and turned out to be very conservative Republicans who considered Hillary Clinton to be the Devil and Trump to be the answer to all America’s problems. They were passionate defenders of the right to carry guns and owned several which they fortunately weren’t carrying round Europe. Dan was a rocket scientist and really interesting on uncontentious topics.


We sensibly decided not to argue with them, although we had a detailed talk about gun laws and police brutality towards black Americans. On these subjects, as well as Donald Trump, it was all a media beat up! We said our fond farewells and left the restaurant, relieved we hadn’t caused a major scene, but had managed to enjoy our dinner which in my case was lamb intestines.



Thursday 22nd

A fine morning dawned, although there were signs of cloud building up from the south. We had breakfast upstairs on the rooftop terrace, a bit later than expected because Pasquale had to check in four Italians who had arrived at 9 am. We had decided to leave the car parked on the metre for the day while we explored Lecce’s old town, so we set out after 10 and our first stop was the Museo Faggiano about 50 metres up the next road. This was an incredible excavation of an old house which started when Signor Faggiano tried to sort his plumbing out when planning a trattoria and found Roman ruins underneath the house. He was prevented from continuing with his restaurant plans, so decided to work with the relevant historical authority to develop the museum. It is on four storeys with ruins underground and examples of Norman and 16th century architecture, including signs of the Knights Templar on the ground and upper floors.


Then it was time for coffee in the Piazza San’Oronzo when it began to rain quite hard, but within half an hour it had stopped, so we continued through the old town which was quite beautiful. We walked to the Porto Napoli and spotted a good cafe called Paisiello where we ended up having a Caprese salad with mozzarella and a bruschetta with tomatoes, cheese and anchovies, served by a waitress with a great sense of humour. It was actually in our outdated version of Lonely Planet, so must have been good for at least 20 years.


We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and resting before heading back to the main square. We took another of Julian’s tips for dinner at a fish restaurant called Pescheria con Cottura, basically a fish shop with tables, designed to be cool. We were a bit annoyed at being instructed how to order and pay, directed to our table, then having our main causes dumped on us before we had finished our anchovies and marinated fish starter. After dinner we stopped for a final glass of red wine at a cafe on the square with a concert happening in the amphitheatre. A rather staid Italian group was playing in front of a dutifully enthusiastic crowd.


Friday 23rd

Another breakfast on the terrace, chatting to a couple from Devon and heading to Alberobello for a week in a trulli villa – not sure how they will fill their time.


Today we were determined to find the coast at Gallipoli and Porto Cesario, so off we went with Waze dutifully programmed to guide us. We had coffee by the leisure port in Porto Cesario with ducks quacking and geese honking in the harbour, but no sign of seagulls. It was all very peaceful. Next on to Gallipoli, but we turned off just before it and found a beach at Rivabella where I had a lovely swim, but apart from a few other people and a couple of dogs, there was no sign of life.


We set off for Gallipoli and spotted a restaurant called La Caravelle on a roundabout with a beautiful view back up the coast. We had freshly caught, grilled and filleted sea bream which was superb. We had a brief drive along the front at Gallipoli and set off back to Lecce to make sure we got a good parking space before the evening rush.


In the evening we went into town a bit later than previously, had a drink at Il Paisiello before going foraging for somewhere to have dinner. We had seen a restaurant next to the Pescheria which looked quite good and decided to try it. It was called Semiserio, but its approach to the food was very innovative and totally serious. We had a great dinner, including calamari cooked in coconut and served on a fava bean mash and a pasta dish with very small tubes of pasta served with seafood.