Standing room only

Lunchtime queues FlorenceFlorence council has issued new legislation to deal with the ‘continuing degradation‘ of the city from mass tourism. Action has been taken and, in particular, aimed at the top rated snack bar ‘All’Antico Vinaio‘ in Via dei Neri just behind the Uffizi Gallery. Over the past 5 years it has seen a boom in trade, largely produced via social networks. It rates so highly on TripAdvisor that tourists queue for up to an hour for the scrumptious  ‘schiacciata’ (Florentine salted and oiled flat bread) filled with delicious local produce of salami, prosciutto, vegetable and cheese assortments. Lunch

But having finally acquired the sandwich, tourists line the entire street sitting on the footpath. All’Antico Vinaio has 2 snack bars and 1 restaurant enjoying a roaring trade, while the remaining shops that line the street are suffering as food scraps lie about, pigeons swoop in, tourists visually block their passing trade, turning the street into a pretty disgusting site most of the day. Florence lunchtime police patrolSo it’s now standing room only! Council police are on patrol for a few hours each day and evening but I think it will be a lost battle. The retailers in via dei Neri were already paying for 4 vigilante to dissuade tourists from sitting along the street but it had proved largely ineffectual.

Antico Vinaio has now placed staff outside to advise clients where they may find a public bench to sit on to avoid the €500 fine, although they are relatively sparse. As my hairdresser is in the same street I did a quick reconnaissance of the area and found a lot of tourists sitting now on the steps in front of the Old Courthouse or uncomfortably standing in a grotty side street. A pity since there are loads of places to eat sandwiches in Florence but obviously not with such a high profile that social  networks have created of All’Antico Vinaio.

Previously the same Florentine Mayor, Dario Nardella, had introduced washing the steps of the churches at lunchtime to dissuade tourists from lunching at the church and to restore some sort of ‘decorum’. As the temperatures rose in the Summer the steps soon dried out and the tourists returned! No more Street food licenses are being issued in the city and none can be revoked, so the problem will continue.

The solution? Who knows? It is something of a clash of cultures as well, since Tripe stand FlorenceItalians don’t usually eat on the street, even in a hurry they sit on a stool at the tripe stand (when tourists haven’t beaten them to it!) or stand inside their lunchtime bar/cafe. Social networks have created a totally new phenomenon and the obligatory ‘selfie’ of lunch or dinner.

The mass tourism of today is difficult to manage, not just in Florence. Cinque Terre, Venice and other major cities are overwhelmed and all struggling to find solutions. I fear many tourists have now gone ‘feral’, treating Italy like a Disneyland, behaving in a way they would probably never do at home….or maybe they do!

We have had monuments and statues damaged, fountains being used for a cool dip, and recently a tourist leapt from the vaporetta in Venice into the Grand Canal as she had no ticket when Inspectors got on board! In the Cinque Terre tourists Olive tree nets 5 Terre
treated olive tree nets used for picking as hammocks, unfortunately tearing the nets as they are not meant for 80 kilo bodies! Climbing in the same fragile territory has often caused rock slides and/or injuries to the same to be saved by a voluntary health service and sometimes employing helicopter rescue services at Italian expense. Florence Council police

 

I suspect many tourists are oblivious to the damage they cause, and Italy incapable of visualizing and implementing measures for sustainable tourism.Florence dinnertime

 

 

 

 

So be warned and avoid the fine as the Council Police are out on patrol now so it’s standing room only!  And while I can highly recommend the schiacciata sandwiches from All’Antica Vinaio I don’t think any meal deserves to be queued for….

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Badged and Badgered

The Tourist guideIt’s time to get badged again! After much thought and procrastination I have decided at this ripe (old) age to get another badge as an Italian historian tourist guide. Which means a year course and lots of art history studies, starting next week. So blog posts may become erratic or worse still I may take you all along with my studies, bit by bit, to the most beautiful monuments and art of Florence!

You may well ask, do you need a badge, or more appropriately, do you need Tourist Escort badgea license? In fact it’s true and any time you have had an art historian guide in a city like Florence you may have noticed their badge dangling conspicuously around their necks. For those who have travelled on tour with me may remember my badge, but if you looked closely it was a Tourist Escort  (Accompagnatrice Turistica) badge easily gained for anyone who has an Arts/ Humanities degree (like me) and for those that don’t attendance on the Tourist Escort course.

Mother henIn classic Italian style, loads of jobs require a license and justifiably so, to show you have a minimum of skill and expertise in the area.  Although I always felt my Social work background was a bonus in being a good ‘Mother Hen’ of my delightful ‘chics’

A Tourist guide is usually quite jealous of their license and ever on the look out to defend their status against unlicensed intruders or even against Tour Escorts.

I have vivid memories of a Tourist guide in Padua shouting at me for being a ‘guide’ and threatening police intervention when she saw me with my group. All of which could have meant a hefty fine if I was ‘guiding‘ but then I was just doing my usual Tourist Escort job  – pointing out the toilets and where we would meet again after the group’s free time. So no risk of any fine but she was adamant, as well as very flashy, parading around with an enormous flower as her guide banner. An unpleasant incident which ended in a shouting match.

The badgering did not impress my group who were Alternative Guide badgeso protective that they made me a ‘new badge’ and at the end of the tour gave me this beautiful whirly whirly to use in future! Wow, what a lovely My Guiding flowergroup that was!

My whirly whirly unfortunately has never left the house as I know how much  groups, especially Aussies, hate to be herded, and I forever tried to be discreet when we were out and about. At best…or worst I made do with one of my colorful umbrellas that I have not lost and continue to use.Guide umbrellas

Still the gift was much appreciated as was their ‘official tourist guide’ badge which sticks in my cork board, yellowing a little with age now.

I will be honest and say I am not sure if I am going to get this badge, but I will be giving it my best shot and have already been doing preliminary studies. Naturally it’s going to be all in Italian so after 30+ years here, it will be good to brush up on my Italian and boost my vocabulary!

Agrigento guide LorenzoTourist guides have always fascinated me, they are true story tellers, making ancient monuments come alive, bringing the past into our laps.Such an art in story telling and not something that everyone can do. Many of my Tourist guides (chosen personally) have kept my groups spellbound and entertained without being overwhelming.

And when on holidays I always use a local tourist  guide – from Darwin to Cuba to Matera, my last experience! At the same time I never regret my Tourist Escort time as that really is another job altogether, which Tourist guides experience rarely.  Spending days and weeks together with people is another art in itself and keeping that large family happy not always an easy task.

So wish me luck…and I will keep you posted on my progress!

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Cinque Terre, another season begins

 

View to Doria castleAt the Cinque Terre Spring has burst upon us finally and in the past 10 days it has been Vernazza outdor restauantaction stations all round. The change from Winter to Summer time brought us out of the gloomy tunnel and blessed us with the extra daylight hours to get ready for the tourist season. Between storms and sunshine the outdoor platforms for the restaurants and cafes were completed and some of the tables at Vernazza boast new umbrellas in typically bold colours that are so Vernazza outdoor bar and restaurantmuch a part of the Cinque Terre tradition.

Volunteers cleaned up the small beach of Vernazza from the winter debris that sea storms had tossed up. And locals finished painting their bright facades that forever get a beating from the sea air. The place is looking pristine clean and ready to go.

The ferries are running, as long as it’s not too rough, yet it’s too soon for the canoes toVernazz harbout be lowered from their safe haunt at the back of the church. The new timetable is out for the Cinque Terre Express train and the prices so far remain the same as last year.

I snuck down early morning indulging in the peace and quiet and moved on as the tourists spilled from the train platform. The cruise ship  was in and it was going to be a busy time over Easter. On the trail above the village flowers perfumed the air and the vines were just starting to green, such a beautiful time of year.

 

And you can never get tired of the view from above, it is simple stunning,View of Vernazza

In Corniglia  late morning sun warmed tourists having breakfast in the main squareCorniglia main square where the trees are still barren of foliage and the tourists are less likely to be day trippers. Corniglia manages to maintain its layback atmosphere as the 380 steps of the Lardarina to get there remain a good deterrent to cruise passengers and the local bus often too crowded to be used as an alternative.

View Corniglia to manarolaLocals mingled with tourists at the outdoor café at the end of the village, lapping up the sunshine and the sea breeze and of course the superb view that makes the Cinque Terre so unique.

 

 

So be tempted, and come over…..and remember if you need an orientation day contact me!

View Corniglia to Monterosso

 

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Colour, chaos, eclectic, eccentric Naples

On a surprise visit to Naples for only a couple of days I managed to squeeze in the essentials of the city and savour its chaotic atmosphere and its fabulous pizza. I guess pizza comes first to mind whenever Naples is mentioned, alongside Vesuvius and nearby Pompeii. All of which rate highly and in fact I will have to write a separate blog on the National Archeological of Naples that houses the most incredible collection of mosaics, frescoes and artefacts from Pompeii.

So on a wet night we ventured out early to find Sorbillo – the historic pizzeria in the centre of town. Early to grab the last table before a queue formed outside with lots of locals. The puffy Neapolitan style pizza was scrumptiously light and tasty. In fact Sorbillo had been the main instigator and successful in promoting the wood fire baked Neapolitan pizza to the Unesco list as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in December 2017. Italy had argued that the practice was part of a unique cultural and gastronomic tradition and in respect of its Unesco Heritage listing, toppings considered unseemly like pineapple, minced beef and beans are ‘OUT’!

Naples centreThe streets were chaotic, colourful and electric. Being Italy’s third largest city with a population of over 3 million the mix is not surprising. It’s cosmopolitan history of Greek, French and Spanish conquerors has left a glorious heritage that hides amongst some areas of decay and squalor. But how could it not retain its exotic character when the legend says Naples was built where the Siren Parthenhope was washed ashore after being rejected by Ulysses!

Legend also envelopes the Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) the oldest Castle in Naples that sits in the Bay of Naples keeping a watchful eye on Vesuvius. It is said Virgil the Latin poet who had super natural powers planted a magic egg inside the Castle, which as long as the egg remains intact the city will be protected from catastrophes……and the egg is still intact?!

Naples souvenirsLegends and superstition are part of life still and the typical red ‘Corno‘ charm against the ‘Evil eye’ hangs everywhere, together with the ever popular ‘Pulcinella’ a scallywag figure from the 16thC, in white trousers and blousy white Pulcinella statueshirt that covers his hump and a half mask that covers his ugly cheeky face. But going beyond his appearance and awkward gait  he represents metaphorically the conditions of Naples’ lower classes, rebelling against the aristocracy with irony and a wily grin.

And then there’s Via San Gregorio Armeno home to the famous artisans who produce the thousands of Nativity scene figurines, both ancient and modern, including Popes, politicians ( Berlusconi a favourite!) singers and soccer players.

Church of the New JesusRound a corner or two and the street opens onto a splendid square – Piazza del Gesù with a magnificent 15thC palace turned into a church by the Jesuits late 1500’s, with geometric rustications in front of an elaborate spire devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Naples social centreThe contrast of elegance amidst turmoil, and mad traffic where pedestrians seem to challenge drivers, and if you’re lucky a policeman may help you cross the road!

Neapolitans live up to their name of being experts at the art of managing to get along – ‘arrangiarsi‘ with a smile on their faces. Layback blues music drifts fromVinarte 52 wine bar Naples

 

the wine bar in another square full of restaurants and greenery as we try L’Etto,  a self serve buffet where you pay by the 100g serving a range of tempting local delicacies.

 

And if things are tough for Neapolitans, dining out may mean standing on the street eating at a favourite ‘friggitoria’ fried food and shopping at the local markets where a pair of shoes cost me a meagre €3 having soaked my regular shoes in the downpour the night before. I don’t envy them but I did enjoy seeing them relax in the first sign of sunshine with a classic stunning view and delicious local pastry in hand.


 

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From rags to riches – Matera

Matera cave dwellingWho would have believed that the squalid damp cave dwellings of the past would make Matera a major tourist attraction, a Unesco World Heritage site (1993) and even more than that, the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

Major restoration work is underway and as the EU indicates “the experience is an excellent opportunity to regenerate the city and breathe new life into the city’s culture and boost tourism.

Matera is tucked away in the corner of the little known region of Basilicata next to Puglia, so for us it was an easy 2hr drive across from our ‘trullo’ in Puglia. I had heard about these cave dwellings for years and the extraordinary beauty of the place through the Women’s Fiction Festival held for the past 12 years and from my artist friend Enrico Paolucci after his exhibition there in 2006.

Eager to understand more about the history of this amazing place I booked a Matera view of cave dwellingsfantastic local guide, Marta, who lead us through the Baroque Upper town to the panoramic site overlooking ‘i sassi’. The view was spectacular, an expanse of buildings crammed on top of each other in a maze of little alleyways and we were yet to appreciate that they were in fact built into the rocks.

Marta explained the ancient beginnings, from the 6th century BC through the middle ages when each civilisation, and monastic orders from Benedictine to Byzantine built on the past using the natural rock caves as early lodgings, stables, cellars later carving out churches, chapels and convents. By the 1800’s most of the cave areas were only used as stables or deposits and better accommodation was built above ground. In that period Matera held a certain prestige, being the Capital of the Province from the late 1600’s till 1806.

But with the removal of the Capital to Potenza  and recurrent agricultural crisis the city slid into a long period of decay. The degradation was so serious that the poorest of the population were forced to use the caves as dwellings, accommodating both families and their animals until 1952. On our tour with Marta we were taken into one of these dank dark cave houses, hardly able to imagine the sufferance these families had experienced in such cramped unhygienic conditions.

Life was hard and depended on communal living as testify the communal oven that baked the enormous weekly loaf that is still baked to this day.

It was not until the 1950’s that the Government decided to move the 15,000 families to new residential quarters, not an easy task and despite associated criticisms and delays over the new housing the families were relocated. The area of ‘i sassi’ remained abandoned until the 1980’s when new funds were made available for the recuperation of this ancient site. Now the properties can be leased for 99years and the city has seen a boom in tourism ever since. Some of the ancient cave dwellings are even available for rent on Airbnb with a decidedly improved look, although they still retain the physical aspects of the past, with  rarely more than one window and/or entrance so definitely not appropriate for anyone with claustrophobia!

Wandering the alleyways and hearing the history and developments of the place was fascinating, visiting the ancient Rupestrian church had me spellbound. The squalor of the past was now an inviting stone paved road to alleyways lined with creamy architecture cut into and over the rock. The Stone Age’ restaurant tempts us with “panzarotti fritti’ (typical half moon pasta fried and filled with delicious mozzarella) and fresh pomegranate juice but we continue the tour

The upper town is beautifully Baroque in style, reminiscent of our time in Lecce.

Concave churches, and as many cherubs and menacing skeletons decorating the Matera city cisternfacades, together with mega cisterns still visitable below street level. There was hardly time to explore it all, an absolutely fascinating city that will merit its title of European Capital of Culture.

How could we go past lunching in one of the cave dwellings – the ‘Soul Kitchen’,  highly entertained by the waiters, and delicious local dishes. The pistachio semifreddo was out of this world!Pisatchio semifreddo - Soul KitchenMatera cave restaurant

 

 

 

 

With tummies full and the threat of rain we headed back to our trullo, knowing full well that I will be back again, sooner or later, to explore in depth ‘i sassi’ of Matera, as well as the extensive list of places that Marta had suggested to visit next time in the Basilicata region.Matra Rupestrian church


 

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In the heel of Italy – Puglia

Lecce entrance to cathedral squarePuglia -Travelling in the ‘heel’ of Italy, amidst countless olive groves, cruising the coastline through picturesque beach resorts, an explosion of white and blue light ending with a mellow glow of our graceful Baroque base in Lecce.

Polignano a Mare

Quite a Greek feel to so many places which is not unexpected since Greeks settled along the Ionian coast as early as the 8th Century BC.

 

 

Our first step into paradise is at Polignano a Mare, caressed to the sounds of “Volare oh oh, cantare oh oh oh oh” playing from a restaurant as we wandered the shimmering limestone pathways. The village perched precariously on the cliffs protects a beautiful cove with only a handful of swimmers considering the time of year. On Domenico Modugno statuethe opposite side a very appropriate statue to Domenico Modugno, author of “Volare” since it was his hometown.

 

Our first taste of delicious seafood and vegetarian specialities – puree of broad beans with chicory. The beauty of the place enticed us back for a second visit and swim and local buskers entertained us with a different rhythm of drum and violoncello.

Ostuni, known as ‘the white city’, for its whitewashed medieval centre, a practice begunOstuni main square to disinfect the poorer residential area during the period of the plague as well as a means to lightening the labyrinth of alleyways and stepped passages. The only buildings not white are the palatial dwellings now government buildings or churches. Blue skies enhance the contrast.

The view from Ostuni across 19million!! monumental olives to the coast is outstanding and we secular Olives Pugliacannot resist the temptation to see them close-up. Puglia has 60 million olives planted centuries ago and still going strong, 14 times the population of the region. Producing a range of  eating olives and extra virgin oil.

Villanova Puglia

 

Our day ends at the sleepy port and fishing village of Villanova with its XVI century Castle still guarding the entrance.

 

 

Lecce, ‘the Florence of the South’, left us spellbound as we rounded the corner into the Cathedral square after dark and met this splendour.

The city is a riot of cherubs, ornate balconies of strange beasts and decorative facades, a Baroque masterpiece in local stone to rival Noto in Sicily.

A couple of days exploring Lecce‘s parade of ‘putti’ (cherubs) and savouring it’s local delicacies of tarallini, burrata mozzarella and orecchiette pasta with turnip tops finishing with the most fabulous gelati from the famous Gelateria Natale. With over 45 flavours it’s a difficult choice!

We head towards the very tip of the heel at Santa Maria  di Leuca with a stop at Otranto, yet another paradise coastal resort, winding it’s way down from the Aragonese castle, laneways lined with tourist shops, and tempting restaurants and bars.

But we are not to be dissuaded from our project of arriving at the furthest point of Italy, and drive through endless fields of olive groves bordered by miles of dry stone walls, to the picturesque coastal road. On arrival hardly a tourist in sight and for the few that are about the owner of the ‘Sea Wolf’ restaurant commandeers us all with the promise of “if you are unhappy with what you eat, you don’t have to pay!” This would seem unlikely as he proudly boasts he has been in the business for 50 years! And we are not disappointed as we feed on the local fish of the day with a chilled glass of wine.

The day ends with a quick swim near Gallipoli in crystal clear water with a view of the city from the bay. The old town centre sits on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge that ends at the fish market.

A robust fortress dominates, confirming the city’s strategic importance from the past Gallipoli seafronthaving been sacked by just about everyone – Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Normans to Bourbons! A pleasant stroll around its walls and a wander in the main street again past Baroque churches and aristocratic palaces.

It’s time to head home and while there are still so many places to discover in Puglia, this first trip has certainly been a delight and I will definitely be back….sooner or later!Martina Franca

Puglia map

 

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Trulli amazing Puglia!

Trulli PugliaNothing like the excuse of having my Aussie family over on a visit to explore a new region of Italy – Puglia….and it was ‘trulli’ amazing! The grey tiled cones dot the landscape, in the Itria valley, amidst fields of monumental olive groves and farm plantations just like the gilded Buddhist temples dot the countryside in Myanmar.

Our trullo in PugliaI had been dreaming for years of staying in one of these quaint conical roofed houses, and my choice of trullo turned out to be ideal!

Our 2 domed trullo sat in a cluster of trulli, under renovation and still to be renovated, next to historic olive trees, vegetable gardens, and a pig family of three.Our neighbours

 

 

 

 

The owner Gianvito, a super hospitable local with an enormous smile and a twinkle in his eye, proudly introduced us to his family’s trullo where his grandfather used to keep farming equipment and which he had renovated into a charming 2 bedroom residence. Every detail reflected his passion for his local culture – old stable doors as bedroom doors, together with a unique architectural panache – old pieces of ceramics decorated the shower recess like ancient mosaics and a pasta colander as a light shade!

 

He told us the original conical rooms were from the 1500’s and the square addition, that now housed the second bedroom and kitchen, was built a century later. With the continuing Indian Summer weather we could not have chosen a better time to savour our trullo experience. The thick stone walls act as a natural insulation against the cold or heat outside and strengthen the structure to hold the domes.

View of AlberobelloTo get an overdose of trulli we drove to the nearby town of Alberobello where thousands of trulli make up almost the entire town. The history of the town, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is as curious as its picturesque trulli since they were originally built as a tax dodge!

The land had been given to Count Conversano for his services in the crusades so he moved his entire settlement, cultivating the land and clearing the woodlands. However the King of Naples had imposed taxes on new settlements so simple dwellings of dry stone walls with conical roofs were constructed, as they could be dismantled in a hurry! It was not until 1797 that Alberobello was given a permanent town status.

Considering the thousands of trulli present in Alberobello, I hate to think of the enormous mountain of rubble it would have created if dismantled, let alone the chore of reconstruction! For us it was a magic exploration of a village, hobbit like in size and nature, attractive and proud with its whitewashed houses and glistening limestone pathways that wind and bend around souvenir shops, enticing local food delicatessens and buzzing restaurants.

Each spire on the dome a status symbol, demonstrating the builder’s skill and the spending power of the owner. Many of the roofs have painted symbols which may have linked to superstitions of the past, although the whitewashed heart featured in many postcards suggests a more touristy symbol.Alberobello Cathedral, Puglia

The major attraction is obviously the trulli although Alberobello‘s baroque Cathedral also warrants consideration.

And if you can’t stay in a trullo you can always buy one to take home!Puglia trulli souvenirs

 

 

 

 

But Puglia is not just about trulli and as we toured from Bari to the tip of the heel and back we discovered more splendours….to appear in another post


 

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An unbelievable gem -Civita di Bagnoregio

On the walkway to Civita di BagnoregioJust over the border of Tuscany and close to Orvieto in the region of Lazio is the delightful gem of Civita di Bagnoregio. Sitting on a peak in the midst of a vast canyon connected  to the town of Bagnoregio by an alluring footbridge on concrete pylons. The old donkey path leading up to the village has eroded away and the ticket office entry already signifies an access into a timeless world.

Even though busloads of tourists have discovered this gem, there is a quiet awe as we make our way closer to the ancient arch entrance where millions have passed through over the centuriesEntrance to Civita di Bagnoregio.

Only 6 permanent residents enjoy their isolation all year long, keeping company with the tourists who come to stay over. Every corner, laneway, and footpath is a picture postcard. Capers ooze from the medieval walls, basking in the sun together with potted geraniums and creeping ivy that cover many abandoned buildings. Restaurants, deli’s and souvenir shops hide discreetly in every nook and cranny to not disturb the charm, and the locals are proud to talk about the heritage.

Inhabited since Etruscan times the porous rock on which it stands is home to ancient cellars, one now turned into a Museum and used as a bomb shelter during WW11. The main square boasts a lovely church with a simple façade and bell tower now strapped up after the earthquake of October 2016,  a place to sit and watch the flow of people traffic. A local confides that the pillars in front are from the ancient Roman temple and that I should come back for the  ‘wild donkey race’ which is a great laugh as the stubborn animals often baulk and resist and take their time to complete the piazza circuit.

Civita di BagnoregioA Renaissance palace at the entrance is deceiving and needs a second look,  as two thirds of the building remain intact while the rest has crumbled away leaving a window and door entrance into nowhere. Landslides remain a constant threat. Some ‘For Sale’ signs are visible while abandoned ruins have been tidied up and enclosed to not diminish the attractiveness of this quaint place. The yellowish brown tufo blocks of the buildings remind me of Pienza since it is made from the same material although it would be half the size of Pienza.  A cheeky play on words advertises a local B&B – ‘Libera Mente’ meaning Free your mind or at your own discretion,  and with rooms facing the valley that will be assured.

valley viewThe views of the surrounding clay filled gully seen are breathtaking, with olives, vineyards and Mediterranean bushland clinging to the dramatic slopes. Every corner a photographers dream, when able to ‘photoshop‘ the tourists out!

 

Still Civita di Bagnoregio feels well-fortified against change, described by a local poet as ‘an island bravely poised in the middle of the air, on the top of a truncated cone above the immense abyss”.    How true!View of Civita di Bagnoregio

 

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The Castle- Vernazza

Vernazza Cinque TerreThe Castle….no not the famous one in Tullamarine, for those who may remember the movie but the landmark of Vernazza, Cinque Terre. This ancient Doria Castle has featured in millions of tourist photos as an icon of Vernazza, although not everyone takes the steep steps up to explore it fully. Vernazza Castle

 

Making the most out of a cloudy morning I climbed the narrow alleyways or ‘caruggi’ as they are known in dialect, to enjoy the breathtaking view from the Castle.

Tucked in a corner on the way was Susie Barrow’s Art gallery, an English artist who has been living in the area for the past 9 years, doing jewellery and ‘splashnflow’ watercolours.

Pirate of the pastI had visions of swashbuckling pirates plundering their way through the labyrinth of alleyways in search of treasures, or more likely, seizing men and women to use as enforced labour or to sell off as slaves. In fact they say the ‘caruggi’ were specifically built so narrow so no one could be surrounded by a group of sword thrusting bandits!

Historical documents date the Castle and its Tower to the 13th Century although it may be even older than that. Little remains of the Castle apart from the Tower, and during the Summer there is often an Art exhibition in one of the rooms below.

It is highly likely the castle, with its imposing tower, was built as part of the Vernazza system of fortifications commissioned by the Genovese during the early Middle Ages to defend itself against the raids of Muslim pirates from Andalusia or the Basque bandits from Southern France.

 

On climbing the narrow spiral stairs it’s easy to appreciate its defence quality for the commanding view of the coastline and  complete coverage of the village below.

Even during the Second World War, it was used as a defence base against Nazi attacks.

Today it is a peaceful spot to admire the stunning view and inhale the beauty of the surroundings of Vernazza and the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza wine poemAt the exit there is a sweet poem:

You don’t leave the Castle       without drinking our wine,          that’s called ‘Schiacchetra’           and which brings happiness

 

 

 


 

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Poetry, exotic wine and Bolgheri castle

Continuing our wine research takes us to the area of Bolgheri, sometimes described as the  ‘snobby area’ of Tuscan wine production since it has imported grape varieties from Bordeaux, France – cabernet sauvignon, merlot. Quite a change from the other famous Tuscan wines produced from San Giovese grapes – Brunello, Chianti, Vino Nobile.Bolgheri avenue of cypress

 

 

 

It’s a great day as we drive along the Tuscan coastline and surprisingly through ‘La California’ , not quite the California I was expecting, but an indicator that the turn off for Bolgheri is close by. It cannot be missed as it is flanked by over 2500 cypress trees for the entire 5km that lead to the enchanting hamlet of the Castle of Bolgheri. Rendered famous in the poem of Giosuè Carducci.

Bolgheri castleThe origins of Bolgheri Castle date back to 1500. Since then, it has been the property of the Counts of Gherardesca family. In the second half of the 1700s, restoration work and improvements were made to the building, and the cellars were built. In 1895, the castle’s façade was modified, with the construction of the tower and merlons as we still see them today. Bolgheri Castle and its surrounding lands were transferred by hereditary succession to the current family of the Counts Zileri Dal Verme.”

The grounds of the Castle boast wine and handcraft shops and cute Enoteca’s for a light snack or restaurants tucked inside the cool ancient walls offering welcome relief from the heat of the day.

Every nook and cranny has been tastefully refurbished to accommodate the flow of tourists, yet retain the contours of the Castle buildings and cellars.

Wine is everywhere and we head off to explore some of the local wineries and learn about the local production. Our first two attempts to visit were greeted with a rather cool reception and polite refusal at the gate intercom, either because they no longer open for public visits or only by prior appointment. We persist and fortunately find some very welcoming family run wineries keen to explain the development of Bolgheri wines.

Sassicaia winesIn the 1920s the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta dreamt of creating a ‘thoroughbred’ wine and for him, as for all the aristocracy of the time, the ideal was Bordeaux. His great grandfather had experimented with these grape varieties in the Piedmont area and seeing the similarity of terrain in the area of Bolgheri Mario planted cabernet sauvignon and merlot on his property –Tenuto di San Guido. In 1930 he married Clarice della Gherardesca consolidating his wealth and interest in top quality horse breeding. Initially critics were not enthusiastic about the wine, being more accustomed to the lighter local wines, and  the vineyard did not release any wine commercially until 1968 – Bolgheri Sassicaia. Now the Sassicaia is ‘The’ wine of Bolgheri together with Bolgheri DOC where the grape varieties are not mentioned on the labels as the Terroir: the grape-growing conditions of the area, are considered more important.

As described by local experts : ‘The wines from this area are incredibly compact, dark and ruby red in color, which suggests great ageing potential. The heady bouquets are reminiscent of ripe berries, with hints of Mediterranean maquis (the main vegetation along the Mediterranean coastline) and spicy oak. They are characterized by their powerful structure, elegant poise and smooth, rounded natures. A sweetness of fruit on the palate is backed by layers of velvety tannins, a lively, fresh acidity and a long, lingering finish.’Bogheri winery

The area has other villages of interest like Castagneto Carducci, as well as a great stretch of sandy beaches, so something for everyone.Bolgheri souvenir

 

We finished the day with a glass of wine back in the square at Bolgheri noting some  words of wisdom on a shopping bag:

” We are all mortal until our first kiss and second glass of wine”


 

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