mercoledì 16 aprile 2014

Confessions of a Non-Art Lover in Siena

Piazza del Campo
With two days to fill in my spring Italian tour, I was tempted to Siena by a mixture of my desire to discover more of Tuscany and the descriptions of the town in my Lonely Planet as being a quiet place where nothing much goes on after the evening passeggiata. Travelling on your own, one of the most depressing things can be watching everyone else enjoy busy restaurants and lively discussions over a drink with friends while you go home for an early night because you have nobody to go out with.
And the Lonely Planet guide was right. There were some crowds of tourists (mainly schoolchildren) around the main sights during the day, but as soon as I wandered away from the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo, much of it was almost eerily quiet. Siena flourished during medieval times, both as a centre of culture and the home of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world's oldest bank, which was founded in 1472. After that, however, it lost much of its political power and importance, and as a result, there has been very little development in the centre since, leaving it well preserved and harmoniously medieval.

The Campo from the tower. Each section of the paving represents one of the contrade.
More famous than the bank, though, is the Palio. Siena is divided up into 14 districts (contrade) , and its citizens belong firmly and proudly to the district where they are born. For the Palio, a representative from each contrada competes in a crazy horse race that starts with 13 of the horses being charged from behind by the fourteenth and ends with the horses pouring out of the campo and into the streets beyond, with or without their riders. The race takes place in the summer, so I didn't see it (Siena becomes a lot less sleepy then!), but the Piazza del Campo is beautiful in itself, and even more interesting when you imagine the Palio taking place inside it.

Thirdly, like so many Italian towns, Siena is famous for its works of art. Being more or less completely ignorant about art history, I knew this was likely to give rise to a familiar feeling of guilt as I contemplating visiting various churches and museums but secretly just wanted to find the best gelateria and a nice view of the city. So this is the strategy I adopted:

The tower staircase.
Not for the claustrophobic!
First, I walked around the city to get my bearings and ascertain that there was nowhere I would rather be than at the Piazza del Campo looking at frescos. Then I fortified myself with an ice cream. By this point it was after five o'clock, so I knew that any museum-visiting time would, of necessity, be limited. When the lady at the ticket desk of the Museo Civico assured me that an hour and a half was plenty of time to climb the tower and look at the art, I happily bought a combined ticket and headed for the stairs.  In fact, the end of the afternoon turned out to be the perfect time to visit both the tower and the museum. The staircase in the tower is so narrow that they won't even let you take your handbag up it, so I was glad that as I was going up, there was hardly anyone else around, and I was able to enjoy the views from the top in perfect peace.

Siena from the tower.
After that, it was time to tackle the artwork, and having decided that I wasn't going to look at very much of it, I made an effort to appreciate what I did see. Armed with a few travel guides (on my Kindle - the travelling bookworm's best friend), I read about, observed and enjoyed as much as I could. I skipped the first three rooms, because even the art-aholic who wrote the Lonely Planet guide didn't seem to think they were that exciting and went straight to the beautifully coloured celebration of the Risorgimento (Italian unification). Next up was Pope Alexander III's conflict with Barbarossa, which, with the guidebook to explain the history behind the pictures, was also interesting and accessible to ignoramuses like me - a bit like reading a 15th century cartoon strip.*

The other two rooms that I liked were the Sala Mappamondo and the Sala dei Nove, where the great works of art contain messages to the councillors of Siena who made important decisions there. One, Martini's Maesta. reminds them to treat the poor fairly if they want to depend on assistance from the virgin Mary, while the other depicts the consequences of good and bad government.

So that was how I survived my encounter with Art in Siena. There were so many other things I could have seen, and I do regret not going inside the Duomo, which sounds magnificent (I went to the lovely San Gimignano instead), but I am convinced that often when you go to famous museums and churches, they are horribly croweded because of all the people who feel they have to go there but aren't actually appreciating what they see at all, and I'm happy that at least I wasn't one of those people.

*Being ignorant, I had to check if there was a connection with the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, but it turns out that that Alex was a 19th century Emperor of Russia. Oh well.

martedì 15 aprile 2014

Hiking La Dorsale del Triangolo Lariano

Ever since I heard about La Dorsale del Triangolo Lariano, a trail that goes from Brunate, the village at the top of the funicular above Como town, to Bellaggio, the town at the point of the triangolo that divides Lake Como into two branches at its southern end, I had wanted to hike it. And when, a couple of weeks ago, I finally did tick it off my bucket list, I wanted to add it straight back on to the bottom again.

We arrived in Milan by train, then took the Trenord service to Como from Milano Cadorna. We stocked up on picnic provisions at the little grocer on the corner between the train and the bus stations, which turned out to be a great move, as the food was excellent. After that, a quick ride on the funicular took us 500 vertical metres from the lake shore up into the mountains to the start of the trail.
Monte Boletto
You can download a detailed description of the trail here, so I'll just pick out some of the highlights. We arrived at the top of Monte Boletto, where you the first big panorama of the lake and the Dorsale ridge leading on ahead of you, just in time for lunch and a spot of lazy sunbathing. Often along the trail you have the choice between the Dorsale and the Dorsale per Cresta, which takes you over the top of the summits. Generally speaking, the time difference isn't huge and the views from the Cresta (ridge) are better, but, this being the first big hike of the season, we found walking with our 2-day backpacks quite tiring and alternated between the Cresta and the standard path.

We spent the night at the Albergo del Dosso in Pian del Tivano, which turned out to be a fantastic choice. The owners were very kind and welcoming, the rooms were comfortable, and the food (and the artisanal beer, I'm told) was fantastic. Dinner started with a buffet of salads and vegetables, then we had a choice of several pasta dishes or the local polenta speciality for the primo. Many of us chose the polenta, which was served with herbs, cheese, garlic and olive oil and was so filling that I coudn't even finish mine. Those who could manage also had a meat secondo (again there were a few options) while the rest of us opted for a delicious selection of local cheeses. For dessert, there was fresh fruit or a choice between two home-made fruit tarts. I would highly recommend Il Dosso, but just be aware that it's at the opposite end of Pian del Tivano from the Dorsale trail. We did as the pdf guide said and hiked along the road, but from the map it looked as if you could also take a different turning at Monte Croce and come out more or less at the hotel.

View from Monte San Primo
Day two started with an easy walk up a river valley, eventually leading to the ridge of Monte San Primo, where you are suddenly confronted with the most beautiful panorama of the whole trail, looking up the lake to the Swiss mountains and along down the ridge to Bellaggio. There was still a bit of snow when we were there, but it was an easy  descent, even if some sliding did go on, down into the forest.

Sentiero del Viandante
We went on from Bellaggio to Varenna, where we stayed for another day and strolled along the Sentiero del Viandante, which is also beautiful, but you can also take the ferry back from Bellagio to Como and complete the trip in 2 days.

domenica 18 agosto 2013

Holidaying on the Italian Riviera

When Italians talk about their holidays, the first question is usually the same: are we going to the mountains or to the seaside? Understanding Frenchman and I were lucky enough to be able to do both this summer, as after our stay in the Valle d'Aosta and our friends' beautiful wedding, we headed off for a few days on the Ligurian coast, a.k.a. the Italian Riviera.

There are lots of lovely things to do in this part of the world. You can visit the Cinque Terre, the 5 gorgeous little fishing villages nestled in the cliffs west of La Spezia, mingle with the international jet set in Portofino, or hike the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, high in the mountains which drop so dramatically down to the sea.

This time round, however, we decided to have a relaxing time at the beach and booked a little studio in the little fishing village of Laigueglia, half way between Savona and Sanremo. If you would like to do the same, here are some hints and tips from our experience:

Where to stay: there are hundreds of hotels in towns all along the coast, but we preferred to rent an apartment in order to have more space and more cooking options. We found ours on, a site which has a good choice of accommodation with clearly presented information.

Transport: we had a hired car, but a train line runs nearly the whole way along the coast and there seemed to be plenty of buses. If you have a car, it's worth using the motorway for speed and high-up views, and the coast road if you want to visit the towns of the region at a slower pace. Be prepared for lots of tunnels on the motorway, and steep, narrow, twisty roads if you venture out of the town centre. Our studio was at the top of a hill that had to be taken mostly in first gear, and, for the safety of our relationship, I chose to let Understanding Frenchman drive it every time.

Activities: in August, it was too hot to do much other than stroll around the towns and go to the beach, but there are lots of trails in the hilly hinterland behind the coastal towns. The views are spectacular, but we sweated out about ten litres of fluid each on one little climb from the coast up to the ridge behind Laigueglia, so be careful!

Places to Visit: some of the towns seemed to be little more than strips of hotels, while others had more character. We liked Alassio for its shops, Noli for its architecture and history and Sanremo for its old town, which is a maze of dark stairways and little alleyways which manages to be both picturesque and a bit rough around the edges, and a huge contrast to its glamorous new town, seafront and casino. Sanremo also has pretty public gardens.

Choosing your Beach: at first glance, the Italian Riviera looks quite uniform, with endless promenades and narrow beaches covered with coloured umbrellas, but on closer investigation, we found quite a lot of variety. Most of the beaches are private, and you have to pay around 13 euros to rent a deckchair and parasol for 2 people for the day. While I kind of resent having to pay to go to the beach, I would say that if you plan to stay all day and don't have a parasol of your own, this is probably worth it, because the sun is so strong that spending the whole day without shade is neither healthy or very pleasant. Because we preferred to go to the beach a couple of times a day for an hour or so, we sought out the public beaches, which are easily recogniseable because the the parasols are a non-matching mishmash, rather than being uniform and arranged in straight lines. In Laigueglia, the public beach was stuck way out at the end of town, but Noli's was bigger and very central. 

It's also worth thinking about if you want sand or shingle, and deep or shallow water. We were quite surprised by the difference between Noli (shingle, and it got deep too quickly for small children to play there safely) and Laigueglia (which had sand and lots of very safe, shallow water.

Irritating Creatures: I thought that the sea air might chase away the mosquitoes, but if we hadn't had repellant we would have been eaten alive on our terrace in the evenings. We also spotted a few small jellyfish in the sea, but they were quite easy to avoid and nobody seemed too bothered by them.

Eating: Local specialities include mixed deep-fried seafood, and trofie (a type of pasta) with pesto. We got in the habit of having at least one gelato per day, with the best one coming from a shop in the centre of Alassio. I can't remember the name, but it had a long, curved counter perpendicular to the entrance and an enormous range of flavours. Finally, we were surprised not to find fruit and vegetable markets more easily, but there is a little supermarket in the centre of Laigueglia with excellent fruit and vegetables. We found it on our last evening and were so excited, we bought lots of delicious things to take home with us. We were also delighted when the owner of our flat offered us four big, juicy tomatoes from the garden to eat with our dinner one night.

We were surprised to find that there were hardly any other foreign tourists in most of the places we visited. Nearly all the other people at the beach seemed to be Italian families on their annual summer break.Our time in Liguria wasn't the most action-packed of holidays, but it was nice to relax, take in the lovely scenery and live like an Italian in vacanza for a little while!

sabato 17 agosto 2013

What Confetti Really Means, and Other Facts About Italian Weddings

Before I start, I need to be upfront about something: I am not an expert on Italian weddings In fact, I have been to a grand total of one wedding in Italy, and the couple were both British. But one of the delights of multicultural life (or friends have been resident in Italy for several years) is that sometimes you get to pick the best from each of the cultures and put them together to make something even better, which is what our friends did, and the result was a truly beautiful occasion which I can't resist writing about.*

Our friends got married at a civil ceremony in the Valle d'Aosta. They actually live in another part of Italy, but were able to give "personale" as their reason for choosing a different commune for their wedding. The legal part of the ceremony was quite short: the mayor confirmed the identities of the couple and their witnesses, read out the relevant legislation (3 articles), then read out the wedding vows as "Do you ... ?" questions, to which they only had to answer "Yes". They then signed the register and the mayor summarised what had been said and signed. I've found the legalese read out at other weddings a bit dull, but I liked the fact that the articles from Italian law focused very much on making choices in the best interests of the couple and any children they might have, including giving the children an upbringing appropriate to their capacities, natural inclinations and aspirations. After that there were two readings chosen by the couple, one in English and one in Italian and the bride's sister sang a song. (These were not allowed to have any religious content) Our friends also chose read out the English wedding vows to each other, but obviously that didn't have any legal significance. After that there was time for a few photos, then we all had to leave before the next wedding party came in.

As the couple exited the town hall, we all threw confetti ... but only in the English sense. The actual Italian meaning of confetti is the sugared almonds that guests are given as wedding favours in a little bag or box called a bomboniera much later on. If you threw Italian confetti at the happy couple, they might not stay happy for much longer!

This was just the beginning!
The reception took place in a hotel with a terrace and garden looking out over the mountains. It started with prosecco and aperitivo snacks on the lawn, and as it was about 2pm by this point, we were all hungry and tucked into the buffet. An hour later, when we sat down at our tables for the actual meal, most of us wished we had been a little more restrained - the menu covered both sides of the piece of paper ... and not because there were lots of choices! We started with four different antipasti, or starters, which included little cheese pastries, insalata caprese, local hams and sausages and vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna sauce). Luckily there was a break before we moved on to the next course, with a speech from the father of the bride. (This is a British tradition - I believe that at Italian weddings it's normally one of the witnesses who gives the speech.) The next two courses were risotto then gnocchi, followed by meat with a mushroom sauce ... luckily with more breaks and British-style speeches from the groom and finally the two best men, then we went out to the garden for desserts, wedding cake and spumante. (Prosecco and spumante are both sparkling white wines, but prosecco is drier and is usually served before the meal, while spumante comes afterwards.)

By this time we had been enjoying magnificent food for about six hours straight and as we finished up our desserts, we were also treated to a magnificent sunset over the mountains. Italian friends told us that this would normally be the end of the wedding, with people giving their presents and saying their goodbyes. The tradition is to give money in an envelope rather than actual gifts, and you can buy special cards with a pocket for the money inside for exactly this purpose. While our friends made it clear that the money was to go towards their honeymoon, the tradition in Italy that you give at least enough to cover the cost of your meal. This is also the case in France, whereas in the UK I think the amount spent on a present is based more on how well you know the couple, with friends who aren't particularly close often giving quite small presents.

Our friends' wedding ended with music, dancing and more drinking for those who could take it, but that part was definitely more British. The band did a great job of performing covers of English-language songs, even although they had admitted beforehand that they weren't very sure of some of the words. And so ended a very special day that combined all the best of Italian and British tradition!

*If you would like to hear more about Italian weddings from someone who knows what they're talking about, Leanne at From Australia to Italy has a whole series of posts on the subject that gave me a good idea of what to expect!

domenica 11 agosto 2013

Italians in Slow Driving Shocker!

The summer of 2013 presented me with the opportunity to tick off one of the items on my Ultimate Bucket List. Unlike a regular Bucket List, which is simply a compilation of things you want to do before you kick the proverbial pail, to qualify for the Ultimate Bucket List must meet a second criterion: an increased risk that the kicking might happen during your attempt rather than before or after it. 

Because I am a bit of a wuss, driving in Italy was risky enough to qualify.

My first experience of stereotypical Italian driving occurred when I was working in Campania during the summer of 2005 and a local guy who was, ironically, a member of the Protezione Civile offered to drive us to a nearby town for a party. After an hour long white-knuckle ride where Mr Civil Protection zigzagged along the motorway at double the speed limit, taking both hands off the wheel every couple of minutes while he called his friend for directions (the friend had no idea either) before overtaking on the hard shoulder and finally parking on the hatched triangle between the main road and the sliproad while he worked out where to go, we emerged pale-faced from the car looking terrified enough to convince someone else to offer to drive us back. This was followed by a year in Milan, where I never sat behind the wheel myself but was a fairly regular passenger and was impressed enough by what I saw to write this post. Which was why doing my fair share of the driving on our journey from the Valle d'Aosta to the Ligurian coast via Milan grew in my head to be something of an adventure, and worthy of the U.B.L.

When we popped out of the Mont Blanc tunnel and on to the autostrada, I realised that I wasn't very sure what the speed limit was. Italian roads, like French ones, often don't have times to tell you the actual number of kilometres per hour if it conforms to the national speed limit for that kind of road. In France, as long as there are other cars on the road, this isn't a problem, as the vast majority of people will be driving at precisely the limit plus 2 or 3 km/h . If you let your speed drop to even just 2 km/h below the limit, the person behind you will probably very kindly remind you to speed up by tailgating you and flashing their lights. 

In Italy, we had no idea.

Unsurprisingly, people seemed to be doing more or less whatever speed they wanted. 

Surprisingly, that speed, more often than not, seemed to be well under the limit, often by up to 20 or 30 km/h.

(In fact, the limits are exactly the same as in France: 130/110/90/70/50 depending on the type of road. The main difference is that the Italians seem to enjoy using a wider range of numbers for more dangerous sections of roads, such as 100 and 80 as well as 90 and 70.)

Our second surprise was that we never heard anybody honking their horn in the whole time we were there. Not when people parked in the middle of the narrow Ligurian high streets and nobody could get past. Not when we had to queue for twenty minutes to pay the tolls on the Turin bypass. Not even when we had to a poor old man hadn't understood how to pay for his ticket to get out of a car park and kept everyone waiting behind him, meaning that the time limit on everybody else's tickets ran out and we all got stuck inside.

All in all, driving in Italy was a relatively stress-free experience, apart from when we got stuck behind someone driving slowly on the motorway or couldn't honk the horn when we were desperate to get out of the car park. 

Just in case anyone is disappointed, as I was, a little, that driving in Italy isn't guaranteed to provide the adrenaline buzz I expected, I can confirm that people rarely use their indicators and you can still experience that sense of tension as the car in the lane in front of you repeatedly veers to the left as if it is going to pull out in front of you. I guess most drivers are still too busy gesticulating and using their mobile phones to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

giovedì 8 agosto 2013

Estate Valdostana

The Valle d'Aosta is a tiny region nestled in the north-west corner of Italy, next to the borders with France and Switzerland. Tiny in horizontal square kilometres it may be, but in its verticality it is grandiose, home to some of Europe's most impressive and beautiful mountains, including, but not limited to Gran Paradiso and the Italian sides of Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn) and Monte Bianco. It's also officially bilingual, having once been part of Savoia/Savoie/Savoy, but unlike in Italy's other bilingual region, Alto Adige/Suedtirol, whose questions of cultural and linguistic identity stem from much more recent and painful history, it carries its two languages with ease. Most of the people we met seemed to be mother-tongue Italian speakers but all were perfectly at ease in French. One old lady we met sitting outside her house in the hamlet where we were staying explained to us that, unlike most people in the area, she never learned to read and write French because she was at school at the time of Mussolini, but she could speak it fluently.

I learned to ski in the Valle d'Aosta five years ago, and I remember being awestruck as the instructor named the peaks of Europe's highest summits that were dominating the view in all directions. (Gran Paradiso is the highest mountain entirely in Italy, and as well as Mont Blanc and Monte Cervino, you can also see Monte Rosa, the highest peak in Switzerland and the second-highest in the Alps.) But if anything, I liked it even more in summer, when as well as the sweeping vistas, I could enjoy the detail of the tiny wild flowers, the stone houses with their characteristic slated roofs and the geraniums that spilled over every windowsill and flower pot. It's a story that tells itself better through photographs than words, so without further ado:

The centre of Vens, where we stayed. As well as this hotel, there was a church and some houses, and that was all.

Pretty Flowers

Roofs and mountains

Monte Bianco emerging from the clouds.

Wild Flowers

Butterflies were everywhere.

Wild Rose

Free range chicken in the town square!

Hiking up to the Lacs de Laure

Approaching the Lacs de Laure

Lac Inferieure


Looking across the valley from Vens.


domenica 30 dicembre 2012

Bologna: The Portico Walk

Luckily for our waistlines and our general health, Bologna had an excellent antidote to all that eating: one of the world's longest portico walks, leading from the Porta Saragozza on the edge of the city centre, to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca on  a hill overlooking the town. There are 666 porticoes covering a distance of almost 4km and many steps climbing up to the 300m high summit. While the porticoes are designed to protect pilgrims from the weather, it's actually better to do the walk on a clear day because the views from the top, looking over the city and out to the mountains behind it, are beautiful. The church is also gorgeously decorated and definitely worth a visit, although the famous icon of the Madonna is a little disappointing, being practically swamped by its chunky gold frame. And as a further reward, the walk down is a lot less strenuous than the hike up!

Looking down the steepest bit of the walk.

View from the Sanctuary

You have to continue down the other side a little to get this perfect view of the sanctuary itself.