Villa Medici, Poggio a Caiano Tuscany

Villa Medici Poggio a CaianoLiving in Florence it’s easy to become blasé to the wealth of galleries, museums, palaces and villas that we are surrounded by. So much so that it took a visitor to inspire me to finally visit Villa Medici in Poggio a Caiano on the outskirts of Florence in the province of Prato.  Surprisingly it was free admission, with hardly any other visitors, so we could pick the brains of the local attendants about the Villa’s history despite detailed information on display in each room.

The Villa became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 along with the 11 other Medici villas and 2 gardens as “The Medici villas form the first example of the connection between architecture, gardens, and the environment and became an enduring reference for princely residences throughout Italy and Europe. Their gardens and integration into the natural environment helped develop the appreciation of landscape characteristic Humanism and the Renaissance.”

Villa Medici Poggio a CaianoBegun by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1445, completed by his son in 1520, and designed by architect Giuliano da Sangallo, the eldest in a large and distinguished family of Florentine architects. Typical of Renaissance architecture it contains Classical elements with its Ionic temple façade, a definite ‘Wow‘ factor on entering the gardens, and barrel vaulted ceilings in the interior. It’s simple elegance and curved staircase is very appealing and we are drawn inside.

Lorenzo the Magnificent loved the Villa, using it as his Summer residence, entertaining numerous guests and fondly rearing pheasants for the hunting season. Glorious weddings and important events were held alongside mysterious tragic events like the death of Francesco I ( son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany) and his second wife Bianca Cappello. They both died of acute arsenic poisoning only hours apart, suspected to be at the hands of his brother fearing exclusion from his inheritance! Another being the sad marriage between Cosimo III and the young cousin of the king of France, Margaret Louise d’Orleans. ‘At only 15 she dreaded the thought of marrying a fat, mournful Italian heir to a now impoverished Duchy and made him suffer for it, spending huge amounts of his money on clothes and entertaining and when he finally let her return to France  she took with her an immense sum as well as wall hangings, beds and valuable articles.’ (Christoper Hibbert – Florence, the Biography of a City) 

And the Villa remains rather sparsely furnished today. After the Medici dynasty the Villa Roman Sarcophagocontinued to be home to royalty and nobles – Hapsburg-Lorraine dynasty and important people like Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister and  King Vittorio Emanuele II when Florence was the Capital of Italy between 1865-1870.

The loggia covers the Roman sarcophagi and we head past into the Court theatre room and then through to the Billiard room  with its beautiful decorated ceiling.

The impressive Grand Hall of Leo X heavily adorned with frescoes whose ‘primary purpose is to celebrate the Medici dynasty through comparison to important ancient historical events.’

The delicately furnished bedroom and marble bathroom were lived in by two important women, Elisa Baciocchi and later the Countess of Mirafiori known as the ‘Bella Rosina‘ mistress and later wife of King Vittorio Emanuele II.

While the study and bedroom of the King seem hardly lavish!

Fortunately Margaret Louise d’Orleans left at least one large tapestry for us to admire, a fabulous hunting scene so intricate it seems more like a painting.

Terracotta Frieze from facadeAnd the original terracotta Frieze from the façade is protected inside, allowing a close Portion of Friezeup view of its 14m long scenes about Mother Earth and the Birth of the Sun and Planets.

Now I only have another 9 Villa Medici’s to visit having seen Villa La Pietra and the gardens of the Villa Medici in Fiesole and today’s most famous Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano!

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A day out with VIPs- Portofino

Santa Margherita churchOnly an hour away by train and we are in the pretty seaside town of Santa Margherita Ligure, abuzz with tourists as the cruise ship is in and busy with locals and holiday makers as there is a 4 day special market on ‘Sbarazza Tutti‘ – Get rid of everything sale! The blaze of colourful Summer attire makes the decorated buildings of the town glow under a perfect blue sky. I am mistakenly tempted by some Winter coats in the window and drop in to check the price…..€2,600!!! But after all it was a Moschino and the store definitely not part of the ‘Sbarazza Tutti‘!

A quick glimpse inside the church, although I am more attracted to the black Santa Margherita facadeand white stone mosaic outside so typical of Liguria together with the decorated facades. Santa Margherita Ligure boasts some of the prettiest, a tradition begun in the second half of the XV century, when the rich mercantile aristocracy started to transform the historical medieval centre.

PortofinoBut we are here to explore Portofino, just a short bus or ferry ride away, the picturesque fishing village is considered one of the most chic destinations in Italy, frequented by entrepreneurs, royal families and celebrities and us!. It is peak season and even here, a cruise ship is anchored close by shunting passengers back and forth making the place unpleasantly crowded. Still the crystalline water of the small port packed with boats of all shapes and sizes in front of the colourful facades is definitely picture postcard material. The shop awnings offer welcome shade over the designer shops – Pucci, Rolex, Missoni, Dior and more, and lunchtime diners.

St George church, PortofinoWe head up to get the best view from the little St George church. The rocky  cliff on the opposite side reminds me of the Countess who tragically died in 2001 falling to the sea from her Villa – murder or suicide? The intriguing story continues to fill the gossip pages.Portofino Liguria

On a more worthy note it was Jeannie, the English wife of Baron von Mumm, a German diplomat and photography enthusiast,  who succeeded in convincing the commander of the German detachment of Portofino during the Second World War, to abandon the intentions of destruction of the city. Otherwise we would be unable to enjoy this beautiful place. War bunkers dot the promontory and Castle Brown continued to defend the town as it had done since the XV century. The Castle now belongs to the the town but retains its name from the English consul in Genoa, Montague Yeats-Brown who purchased it for 7,000 lire in 1867 and transformed it into a comfortable villa. The surrounding gardens of the Castle and the neighbouring holiday homes are gorgeous.

 

Portofino + Cannon BayWe explore further, along pretty side streets, mosaic church pavements, more decorated facades and splendid villas that cling to the coastline.

Typical Ligurian stone mosaic

 

The tiny Bay of Cannons is inviting but standing room only so we head for the closest beach area known as Paraggi. Paraggi Beach, PortofinoHowever the crowds deter us and we continue our stroll above the waters edge, enjoying the views back to  Santa Margherita Ligure.Cannot Bay, Portofino


 

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It’s not lousy in Bonassola

View towards LevantoFor those struggling through the Winter in need of a little sunshine, idyllic beaches and crystal blue water, this post is for you. For those dreaming of cycling in the Cinque Terre but overwhelmed by the thought of the steep never ending hills then this alternative could be a better way to start the holiday, cycling Ligurian coast.

For me it was a good day to get away from the crowds in the Cinque Terre and try something different, although I had cycled a small part of the path some years before. The area that I had missed turned out to be the best and is on my list to do again when I have visitors.Google map 5 Terre - Framura

The villages we were to explore are sometimes referred to as the ‘Tre Terre‘ – Levanto, Bonassola, Framura, and there has always been a certain jealous rivalry between them and the Cinque Terre. It’s only a short train ride away to Levanto, our starting point. Hiring bikes was easy, the first rental place we came across being run by a layback American surfer now permanently settled in the area. Two mins ride towards the beach of Levanto and we were already on the Maremonti cycle path inaugurated in 2011, considered one of the most beautiful routes in the whole of Liguria. About 6km of flat bike path with deliciously cool illuminated tunnels with breaks along the way and breathtaking views and idyllic beaches.Cycle path Bonassola-Framura

The track reuses the old railway line, a masterpiece of 1874, electrified in 1926, between Genoa and Pisa. In the 1970s with the duplication of the La Spezia line to Sestri Levante, some sections were abandoned and today they have become the pedestrian cycle path.

Our first stop, after 3kms, is Bonassola, a sweet village with buildings decorated in the typical Ligurian style and a long stretch of pebble beach submersed in umbrellas.

Bonassola

Bonassola and cycle pa

 

 

Crystal clear water entice us but there is barely standing room and we have hardly exercised our biking stamina.

Jack from Surflevanto had fortunately advised us to stop at Porto del Pidocchio ( Louse Port!?) between Bonassola and Framura so we moved on. A break in the tunnel and seeing a line of bikes parked we knew we must be there. Well hidden from view is a narrow inlet surrounded by high black rocks, and alluring blue water that reaches over your head after the first step. A modest crowd dot the beach leaving space for everyone and dwindled over lunchtime. Not a peep of urban noise spoils the tranquility of the place….and no lice in sight!

 

Still we know there is more to come and after a couple of hours in this idyllic spot we need to finish the ride to the third village of Framura 

Immediately out of the tunnel is the tiny port of Framura, brightly coloured fishing boats, canoes and tiny yachts tied up and locals stretched out amidst mermaids and anchors under the watchful eye of the Madonna standing on the rocky outcrop.

The bike path ends here, and a rather convoluted pedestrian walk under, over, and around the railway station leads us to Torsei beach complete with bar doing a roaring trade. Yet there is still ample room to stretch out and sunbake and cool down in crystal clear waterSummertime Liguria


 

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New Madonna at San Bernardino

San Bernardino churchHow does a small village like San Bernardino, in the Cinque Terre, with only 10 permanent residents, 3 dogs and about 5 stray cats manage to keep its community alive? It has certainly been an experience being a part of this village,  warmly welcomed each time I visit, and feeling the need to contribute whenever I can to this small community: helping with maintenance, lobbying the Mayor for better services and listening to the local grumbles. Volunteer labour is an essential part to keeping this village alive, which in the past rebuilt the entire church!

Best of all is helping out at any festivities which are now few and far between. Even our local bar has closed as the younger generation have found work elsewhere so the social meeting point is now sitting by the bus stop. Yet the locals have not lost their resilience and resist by having the world come to them, renting out their rooms and apartments to tourists during the season. When this generation disappear the village will only be for second home owners and tourists passing through unfortunately.

Yet San Bernardino is in the hearts of many, especially those from Corniglia as it is their Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna. And at the festival to the Madonna early September a procession led by the local priest still hikes from Corniglia to celebrate. In fact it is the religious festivals which unite these communities (like many others throughout Italy) and bring back life and laughter to the hearts of all.

Madonna dei Tarsi statueSan Bernardino is entrenched in the heart of a local sculptor, Giuliano Carro, who having seen the public fountain moved to the opposite side of the church square thought something more spiritual should be placed on the space it left. So after months of study and work, and on finding a large sandstone boulder he took up his chisel and gave life to this statue: Madonna dei Tarsi
Described by the Mayor of Vernazza “as a work that is the result of the sweat of one of our artists who, out of pure passion, driven by boundless love for our places, without asking for anything, in all humility, and satisfied only by the ecstatic gaze of those who will linger and admire his finished work.”

Attendance at the inauguration was a must and with over a 100 people the air was charged with chit chat and laughter, like a huge family gathering. Young and old from Vernazza and Corniglia, and those who introduced themselves to me were invariably called ‘Basso‘ the family generated from this village.

Vernazza mayor with sculptor Giuliano CarroThe honor of unveiling the Madonna was given to the 3 oldest members of the community, looked on rather jealously by the two youngest members. And while Giuliano could hardly get the smile off his face, when asked by the Mayor to say a few words he responded  “I am a man of few words, and work with my hands.” He did however share one of his poems for the occasion (read by another local!)

 

Hands
the sun has not yet dawned
your footprints leave little trace
while you caress
the earth under the moon
step by step, like always,
every day until evening

Respecting it as you would a mother,View from San Bernardino
you love these plants like children
that cling to the rocks,

that challenge the absurd
but which without you
they wouldn’t last an instant

always thinking of your world
you are not afraid of it
for your life, when it ends
in every stone there is a memory
hands passed over a face
as a tear falls between the vines

to the moon, to the sun, to the stars
show your huge hands
hard hands, suffered yet true,
frank hands and outspoken words,
hands full of earth, yet never dirty,
huge hands, full of love

and his comment in the brochure- ‘Stop here for a moment and think about the difficulty and poverty but also the greatness and the dignity of the people that for centuries have shaped this earth. Think of their immense fatigue, their defeats, their will, their strength, their sweat. And then, if you want to, lay a flower, or say a Prayer.’

Mayor, Sculptor, Revered guests of honourThe crowd were almost moved to tears. My amateur video failed to capture the moment the drape fell as I had to join the grand applause and cheers that I am sure could be heard as far as the ferry boats chugging along down below!

It was time to party! You could not believe the amount of food and wine that was passed out to the tables, all volunteered from San B  and Corniglia locals . Generous helpings served by us with pride and affection to all the visitors who ate happily in front of the most panoramic view of the Cinque Terre.

The music blared old favourite songs and the partying and dancing continued on into the night. That’s what brings and keeps this community together.

The Madonna dei Tarsi now quietly sits and keeps an eye on us all and the rest of the Cinque Terre below.Cinque Terre, Madonna dei Tarsi statue

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Andrea del Verrocchio – The Master of Da Vinci

Verrocchio Exhibition brochureFlorence continues to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci with an exhibition of his MasterAndrea del Verrocchio at the Palazzo Strozzi. I must admit I am not a real fan of religious art and totally ignorant of who Verrocchio was so I had left my visit to the exhibition to the last week. I was however beguiled by the gentle serenity of the ‘Madonna’ in the publicity boards around town, her gaze lowered, her hair drawn back beneath a transparent veil so delicately embroidered as was the bodice of her gown, it had to be seen for real. The style was typical of many Renaissance painters that I did know like Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Perugino and of course Leonardo da Vinci all of whom painted the Madonna showing enormous tenderness towards her child, an earthly maternal love.

After the exhibition I explored further and discovered that Verrocchio was born in Florence around 1434-37, originally Andrea di Cione, the son of a construction worker in a family where the money was scarce. After his father’s death he had to support his mother and eight brothers and possibly for this reason never married. He became an apprentice goldsmith in the workshop of Giuliano Verrocchio and later took his name. As an artist with his own workshop Andrea del Verrocchio had such illustrious pupils as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico del Ghirlandaio and Perugino.
No one shaped Florentine Art in the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent more than Verrocchio. Trained as a goldsmith, he discovered a bent for sculpture, emerging as the greatest bronze sculpture of his day. He practised drawing and eventually turned to painting. By c 1470, barely over thirty, he had become a beacon in his own right and with his lively workshop.” (Palazzo Strozzi info)

The bust evokes the ideal of female beauty in the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent, merging aristocratic grace with moral values…..and Leonardo drew inspiration from the innovative addition of arms and hands

David Victorious - VerrocchioMarble reliefs and bronze statues of heroes and heroines of the classical world were particularly popular with patrons of the time and it was interesting to see the developments in style and expressions and the attention  to detail was impressive.Alexander the Great - Verrocchio

 

 

 

 

Verrocchio came late to painting yet impressed his fellow artists with his detail on precious jewels, elaborate costumes and drapery bathed in light. His ‘window ledge’ baby Jesus became a new fashion and was copied by many. He studied innovative techniques with Leonardo on the ‘chiaroscuro” effects of light experimenting by painting on fine linen cloth reproducing true drapery soaked in wax or liquid earth modelled on dummies.

In the painting –The Baptism of Christ Vasari tells us “he was assisted by Leonardo da Vinci, his disciple, then quite young, who painted the angels, which was much better than the other parts of the work: and for this reason Verrocchio resolved never again to touch a brush“! Art historians however are not convinced about the legitimacy of the comment as Verrocchio left many works unfinished, being prolific in so many different fields.

He created outdoor sculptures based on classical models, popular in the Winged Boy with DolphinRenaissance and helped forge the fashion for monumental marble fountains, decorated with bronze statues like The Winged boy with Dolphin. He created metal candelabras, equestrian monuments and his work as a goldsmith could be as varied as the small Dove of the Holy Spirit to the gilded copper ball placed on top of the Brunelleschi Dome.

 

 

 

 

Verocchio's gilded copper ball

 

 

Da Vinci-The Virgin with the Laughing Child

 

 

 

And as a surprise finale we were introduced to Leonardo Da Vinci’s only known work of sculpture when he was still a young man, perhaps only 20, modeled in his master’s workshop. The Virgin with the Laughing Child. We have all learnt so much about Da Vinci’s master.

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Hooves clicking on Black Marble

Hiking in the National ParkOut in the heat hiking not far from Siena we are exploring an area of Italian marbleblack marble or commonly known here as Serpentine marble. And while we are no longer able to see the quarries where the ‘marble‘ came from, we are conscious that every step we take is on this precious material. Officially it is not really ‘marble’ but a serpentinite, “a metamorphic rock derived from the rock of magmatic origin that formed about 200 million years ago on the bottom of the ancient Ocean Tetide, where it underwent a process of hydration by interaction with sea water.” The name originates from the similarity of the texture of the rock to that of the skin of a snake, easily seen here in the village wall. Serpentine marble in village wall

The territory of Murlo is rich in outcrops of this rock and it was used to create the black and white dichromy in the Sienese Cathedral. Not an easy feat considering we are hiking amongst tough Tuscan hills around 27kms from Siena.


We are also lucky to be hiking with a mix of experts                                                          – our faithful Environmental guide Grazia, to give us all the info on the local flora, fauna and terrain underfoot                                                                                                          – a geologist Andrea, eager to explain the difference in the formation of marble and serpentinite i.e.  “Marble being rocks that having undergone a process of metamorphism at high temperatures and pressures that has made the minerals recrystallize.”                                                                                                                      – and Grazia’s father Ivo, who was born in the area, now a National Park, and keen to recount old farming techniques and memories of times past.

Cathedral SienaAt the time of the construction of the Cathedral, begun in 1215,  the ‘Opera del Duomo‘ responsable for the construction bought or rented land with quarries or rich in building stones,  vineyards and fields to obtain wine and bread for the workers, water for making mortar, and woods for work timber. Historical records show that the serpentine stones were partially worked in the quarry and each block of black marble weighed approx 80-100 kg and was carted by mules Siena Cathedralacross this rather rugged terrain. Unlike Florence there was no substantial river course to use as an easier alternative. In the end transport became so expensive and difficult that the black marble was used less and abandoned by the 14th Century.

We hike through typical Mediterranean vegetation dominated by holm oaks up and down hills, past some vineyards along trails that linked communities, ancient parish churches and monasteries. We are on our way to the Hermitage of Montespecchio, thinking of the poor mules that carted up to 20 tons of marble to Siena each 6 months and in this heat we are hard pressed to cart our small back packs laden only with bottles of water and lunch!

Now only the ruins of the church remain of the Hermitage, which was in its heyday a large complex and a wealthy one both from donations not only of money but also land and a healthy income to the Augustinian friars from the sale and transport of the black marble. The welcome shade renew our energy as we exlore the ruins from the 12th Century and despite the striped walls so typical of Romanesque architecture the place has an exotic almost Asian feel to it.

We are now close to Ivo’s birthplace and he delights in telling us that he was often here, looking for his pigs that sometimes went astray and enjoyed Old Tuscan schoolforaging in the woods. In the past there were large fields of grain and cereals cultivated on rotation, and each family depended on that and their livestock to survive. We pass the farmhouse, converted school, that he walked 3kms to each day with his 8 brothers and sisters, now a private residence used probably only on holidays.

Then next to the delapidated buildings where he’s was born he calls us onto the overgrown area which was once the paved ‘aia’ or piazza, where they would tie a horse in the centre and with his continuous circling thresh the grain with his hooves. They would gather the grain on enormous sieves and toss it into the area to separate the grain from the kernels. At the end of harvesting there would be a big dinner on long trestle tables in the piazza where all the families would meet and party.

Ivo's childhood home

 

The buildings and land were left to the Forestry department which has sadly left the buildings go to ruin and the local vegetation has taken over. There is a definite hint of nostalgia as Ivo reminisces, yet satisfied as we are appreciative of his stories of times gone by.                                                           So next time you are in Siena and enjoying its splendour you can appreciate even more the hard work that went into trasporting the black marble.

Farming tales

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Heat and Humidity on the High trail to Vernazza

Cinque Terre trail 581 San B to VernazzaThe heat and high humidity of the past week encouraged us to take the high trail from San Bernardino across the valley and down to Vernazza. The Cinque Terre trails are innumerable and crisscross the whole area of the National Park offering breathtaking views, cool shaded woodlands, terraced vineyards and quiet streams that trickle down to the villages below. Besides, the high trails are free, so you can hike as much or as little in a day without paying a cent.

The heavy cloud almost eclipsed our distant view of the Sanctuary of the Our Lady of Reggio which sits above Vernazza, as we set off in the morning for what should be around a 1 1/2hr hike. It took us a little longer with photo stops, rest stops after the uphill stretches and continuous cherry picking or rather cherry stealing along the way!vineyards along the trail

The trail is a pretty one as it meanders in and out of woodlands, through terraced vineyards and across streams and gives distant views of San Bernardino almost disappearing in the clouds.View to San Bernardino

 

 

A  local farmer was out working in his vineyards, and gave a welcome wave together with a shout to make sure we closed the gate against the wild boar! Rarely seen in the day, the boar do a lot of damage as they root around at the base of the dry stone walls and render them unstable. Wherever they can, farmers fence in the terraces against the beasts, but are not always successful in the venture. The boar will slide, even fall, from one terrace down to the next without flinching as they are very tough animals. So we wave back and relatch the gate and head into the cool of the woodlands.

It’s so pleasant to climb up and around and cross crystal clear streams without getting our feet wet. Someone even planted a ‘sculpture‘ along the way which keeps an eye on us.

Santuary Madonna del ReggioJust a few more up and down dales and we see the striped tower of the Sanctuary peeking out from the trees. The church was first mentioned in 1248 with its Romanesque façade and built over an existing cemetery. Inside it houses an image of the Virgin which legend attributed to St Luke, but has been identified as belonging to the 14th Century Genovese school of artists.Santuary Our Lady of Reggio

The area is deliciously cool as century old Oak, Cedar and Horse chestnut trees shade the church. In the grounds is the oldest cypress tree of Liguria, 800 years, and fountains that tap into the Spring water. A great place to practice martial arts!

Every year there is the procession from the Vernazza St Margherita church up the old paved path to the Sanctuary and locals bring a picnic on the national holiday 15th August. From here it’s all down hill for us and the beginning of sea views and Vernazza.

While my favourite high trail is still the one to Manarola as I love the views, this trail is also a very pleasant one and Vernazza a welcome sight.

Vernazz, Cinque Terre

 

Time to wander the main street almost tripping over a basket weaver propped on the steps, a rare sight these days and a skill soon to be lost. Basket weaver

 

 

 

…and then we sit on the waters edge and people watch, eavesdropping on tourist tales with a thirst quenching drink in hand.Vernazza cafe

 

 

 

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Searching for Venus, Portovenere

Portovenere, St Peter's ChurchPortovenere is yet another beautiful town on the Ligurian coastline, close enough to the Cinque Terre to almost feel a part of it, yet secluded enough to avoid the tourist crowds. On a good day it is only a 35mins ferry ride away from the first village of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore otherwise a bus ride from the centre of La Spezia.

Portovenere

Photo Shutterstock – Mare

It is a romantic, picturesque fishing village, lined with tall colourful buildings and quaint alleyways that wind and climb up to the Dorian Castle giving a spectacular view.

It was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997 for its outstanding architecture, and landscape and its exceptional example of human interaction with the environment. This includes the nearby Islands of Palmaria, popular for its beach and two tiny islands with the lighthouse Tino and Tinetto

We were here to find Venus, after all it is the Port of Venus  named as such from the middle of the 1st century BC as supposedly there was a Temple dedicated to the goddess Venus at the tip of the promontory on the site where the Church of St Peter now stands. According to tradition Venus was born from the foam of the surf below!    So far historical diggings have only shown a pre existing 5th century Church under the Church seen today which was consecrated in 1198. Cleverly the later addition of the 13th century is identified by the black and white stripes creating a complex mix of Gothic and Romanesque styles and an incredible landmark for the town.

From every angle the views are amazing – back towards the Cinque Terre, across the bay to the Dorian Castle or over towards Lerici on the mainland or to the Island of Palmaria. Craggy rock formations, hidden caves, and a wild impervious terrain abound, although not sufficiently dangerous to put off raids by the Normans and later Saracen pirates.

The name may be instead from St Venerius – a hermit monk who lived between 550-630 on a monastery built on the Island of Tino. Each year in September the town celebrates the Saint, taking his statue across to the Island to be blessed.

Portovenere view to LericiLord Byron was inspired by the beauty of the place and a frequent visitor, so much so that they named the bay after him. He was known to have swum across the gulf of La Spezia, around 7kms, to Lerici to visit Shelley in 1822, not a mean feat!

Entrance door Potovenere

We explore the main street being tempted by local specialities, like pesto which is out of this world as I have bought it before, and peer through the pasta curtain into the local bakery! Quaint doorways, cute shops, and narrow stairways are tucked in  between multi coloured tower houses.

Slowly we climb the winding steps that lead past the Sanctuary of the White Madonna  with the San Lorenzo church up to the austere Dorian Castle.

The Castle and its walls that surround the historic centre were built by Genoa in the 12th century to protect the town against invasions as it was an important outpost for the Republic of Genoa and the white flag with the red cross of the Republica are still flying throughout the place.

But we were still in search of our Venus and make our way back down to the Church of Mother NatureSt Peter, only to find instead ‘Mother Nature’ a rather plump bronze statue of a woman in a petticoat staring out to sea. A rather melancholy gaze across Byron’s bay. Locals believe she depicts, not Mother Nature, but a woman who lost her husband, a fisherman at sea, and waits undeterred for his return.

Dorian castle overlooking Byroin bay                                                        We may not have found Venus but we have explored another magical place in Liguria and only a few hours hike away from the Cinque Terre, or ferry or train and bus ride. Whichever way Portovenere is definitely worth a visit.Map PortovenereView of St Peter's Church form Dorian Castle

 

 

 

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Hiking San Bernardino to Manarola

Spring flowers on the trailThe Cinque Terre trails are forever enticing whether they be across the valleys, over the mountain or down to an alluring blue sea.  I have my favourite trails and now is a good time to really enjoy the Spring flowers and the new vine shoots and take a hike along the high trail from San Bernardino to Manarola, via Fornacchi and La Cigoletta.

Fornacchi is the tiniest of villages, only 5 houses but with an important laundry service that provides bed linens to the numerousMadonna of Fornacchi apartments and bed and breakfast places in the area. The view is stunning of San Bernardino below and the coastline to Monterosso as a sweet little Madonna indicates the path through to the woods.View from Fornacchi There are no other hikers just the sounds of Nature; rustling leaves from the light breeze and as tiny lizards run out of sight.

Crossroads indicate the trail across the mountain ridge round to Drignano or down towards Corniglia across to Manarola which I prefer as am more fond of coastal views. On the high trail between Corniglia and Manarola I meet lots of hikers since the coastal trail between Corniglia and Manarola is closed now more tourists are obliged to try the high trail.

It’s a great time of year as the vines have sprouted and the views over the famous terraced landscape are compelling. Besides a large part of the trail walks through the vineyards. A total immersion in an ancient farming method where vines are trellised over wire frames to protect them from the strong winds and allow more air circulation underneath to avoid mould from the humidity later in the season.

And of course the thousands of kilometers of drystone walls that make this area a Unesco World Heritage site and a twin site with the Great Wall of China! They say if you put all the drystone walls together they would be twice as long as the Great Wall…..but it’s a saying and I cannot guarantee that as fact.Vines on trellis

Little would most tourists realize how hard it is to maintain these terraces, cultivate these vineyards or even grape pick…..as our volunteers experienced at harvest time.Grape picking Cinque Terre

 

 

The trail leaves the vineyards in time for a coffee stop in the village of Volastra, perched high above the sea. This sweet semi circular village, immersed in olive groves features a lovely Romanesque church sitting on a shaded piazza with plenty of seats for hikers to have a break.Volastra church

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vinew back to San Bernardino

From there it’s downhill all the way with breathtaking views along the coast till Manarola appears in view.

Blessed with sunshine on the descent  enhances the beauty of Manarola as I meander through gorgeous irises and wildflowers and am beckoned on by the aquamarine sea.

Manarola main streetAnd Manarola never disappoints, today the rough seas play on the rocks in the cove, the fishing boats are hauled up and tourists and locals enjoy the fabulous scenery. Manarola bay

Manarola, Cinque Terr


 

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Leonardo Da Vinci and the Battle of Anghiari

Since it is 500 years after the death of Leonardo Da Vinci, Italy is celebrating the anniversary with exhibitions, pageants, and local theatrical performances. The country is floooded with events and is encouraging all of us to explore new places and lesser known facts about Leonardo.Anghiari

Photo credit- Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari.

 

I had taken up the opportunity to combine my love of hiking on an easy trail between Anghiari and Sansepolcro to follow the itinerary of the Florentine soldiers in the crucial Battle of Anghiari of 29 June, 1440. The Battle, played out on the plain between the two towns, was to be colorfully recounted by various local actors along the trail. Unfortunately the performance was cancelled due to stormy weather predictions.

However curiosity had got the better of me and I drove to Anghiari early morning well before the storm and spent a very pleasant few hours exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful medieval village. Along the way to set the mood I stopped at Ponte Buriano bridge to contemplate the scene with Da Vinci, since it is this bridge which features in the background of the Mona Lisa.

Garibaldi at AnghiariGaribaldi welcomed me into the historical centre of Anghiari, a popular statue in towns all over Italy. Shortly after I was to cross the moat, or where it was once, through the drawbridge gateway that protected it from foreign invaders.Anghiari Moat Gate

 

 

 

 

I had stepped back in time; winding alleyways, opened onto intimate piazzas, overlooked by medieval buildings now incorporated into Renaissance palaces. It was beautiful!

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