A Travellerspoint blog

Siena

Escaping Country Tuscany

rain
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It just so happened that after a record 40 minute bag (sleeping) to bag (backpack) pack we arrived at the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare only to find out that the bus strike would continue for another 3 hours. At this point most travellers, particularly our NY friend, would be pulling hair out. Within seconds our contingency plan was in action. We were sitting under an olive tree, in a vineyard, overlooking town from 500 metres away with a hot cup of tea and local delicacy in hand. Go team Hall!

A couple of chapters of Harry Potter and a few slices of pizza later and the bus pulled up around midday. We arrived in Siena around 1.5 hours later. After tallying our camping nights on arrival at a few more than is comfortable (20 plus) we opted for a one night stop in a hotel.

49 euros, a hot shower and something called a p-i-l-l-o-w was pretty sweet for one street behind the famous town square. Each year the town square holds a famous horse race which erupts into festivals for the rest of the week.

Siena is the colour of, well, burnt siena. Orangy red brick is seperated by marble and stone work in the buildings. We visited the enormous basilica heavily adorned with marble frescoes and tilework, traced our way back to the hotel via numerous calligraphy shops, got blinded by the butcher who shone an industrial torch at Steve who was about to take a photo, and lingered long enough in the local supermarket.

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After cooking in our room (is that the same as 'non fumare', debatable if you ask us) we read a few more chapters of Harry then ventured out in the crisp night air to see the square (really an oyster shape) in a different light. To our relief it had stopped raining sufficiently to wander the narrow back steets and catch the lights of the city across the valley.

Posted by snchall 13:29 Archived in Italy Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

San Gimignano

Jimminey Crickets, We are in San Gimignano!

semi-overcast 22 °C
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Leaving Florence at a respectable hour we bumped into a New York traveller with a classic case of 'I have an 8.37am train from the station (keep in mind she is standing at the campsite at 8.25am, almost 40 minutes from the station) and I just want to see the Gondolas and canals in Venice before I make an overnight train at 5pm thisafternoon from Milan to Barcelona'. It dawned on us from our observations that Americans are regularly either on a tour bus, travelling in packs of 8 or more, or more frequently LOST! We wish her the very best in achieving a comprehensive if not slightly optimistic tour of Europe.

Our pace was somewhat less rushed with no bus ticket purchased, stomachs wanting pastries and a desire to visit San Gimignano, a mere 1 hour bus ride south.

Making the Poggibonsi (???) connection we arrived at the glorious walled city of San Gimignano. Proportedly the most visited town in Tuscany, it has 7 remaining towers of the 72 which have been erected in its turbulent history of feuding families etc. Casciano and Tavernelle seem only to erect a few more towers and they may be in the running...

We hope to be known forever as responsible backpackers, and bear in mind this section of the blog will be edited before our children are old enough to read, we hitched a ride to the campsite. The lovely Austrian couple (middle aged although I am sure they believe they are younger) were very chatty when they offered a ride in their brand new Audi in the midday sun.

Eager to get the embassy flag flying we boogeyed on down to the local bus stop and were a little perplexed when the large converted Toyota Hiace came to a halt. Walking through the narrow winding and very picturesque streets we decided that the best vantage point of the town (and to check on the embassy) would be the 13th century 72 metre tower. We met a somewhat older Doogy Houser MD on the tower and helped him take a photo then remained a while to enjoy the vista across rolling hills, church spires, terrocotta roof tiles and vineyards tp the horizon.

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A Day in Tuscany - 15 May

To commence our romantic Tuscan experience we washed a load of smelly socks and undies. By midday we dragged ourselves from the exciting chores and ventured back into town for lunch. Finally a decent sized lump of lasagne was served and eagerly devoured in a popular restaurant in the town square. Watching families play ball in the streets and everybody eating gelato from the 2006 Best Italian Gelato shop across the square made us ponder the idea of returning oneday with our own family. It was concluded that it would be easier to leave kids with the folks instead.

An afternoon swim was needed after taking the long walk (without hitchhiking) through the vineyards and olive groves to the embassy. The sun set amongst the oak trees we were camped underneath and as the day was coming to an end so too was our 1 litre tub of tiramasu gelato.

Posted by snchall 12:40 Archived in Italy Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Florence

Italy as we dreamt it!

sunny 24 °C

Camilla's second stroke of genius (following the bag at the station concept) was to catch the bus from Florence Centrale to the campsite. This idea came straight after her concerns that Steve had no idea where the camping actually was, and that it was likely to be overrun by shady characters if it exists at all.

One stop too far is usually a bad thing when lugging around one's home on your back. Like little turtles we stuck our heads out from within the map and realised the campsite stop is only 10 metres from the lookout where we were standing, Piazzale Michelangelo.

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Florence - 10 May

With a famous skyline such as Florence we awoke keen to get into the thick of it. Walking down through the communal rose gardens, lined with ripe (and as we found out later very delicious) lemons we reached the Ponte Vecchio. This bridge is the only one to survive the bombings of WWII and has since housed jewellery shops. Happy to spend an entire days budget on some stand-in wedding rings we realised that we where a weeks budget short. Given our hunger for red meat it is a shame that the butcher shops that originally used the bridge where nowhere to be found.

We have found that the tourist information centres often give out 'One Day in...' guides for those that have jumped off a tourbus with limited time. It is a great starting point to get to know a city based on a walking tour of the highlights so for today our objective was to walk the 5 km circuit to orientate ourselves.

Into the first small church (it usually only takes a few moments to find a historic church worth looking at) and we were accosted by a couple of very friendly Americans asking for money. Ordinarily the reply would have been less than polite but given that we were in a house of God it seemed fitting to help them PAY (God isn't cheap on the tourist strip) to light up the famous fresco on the wall. It was a unique experience so we put the expenditure down to helping others to enjoy their experience.

Like the advertising junkies that we are a poster caught our eye (please note this is very tongue in cheek). Spiderman 3 has been released in English at the Cinema Teatro Odeon, with original 1930s decor. Walking on we came into the Piazza de la Repubbblica with the most beautiful carosel yet complete with pink feathers on the horses heads.

The highlight of the walk, and infact the centrepiece of the Florence skyline is the amazing Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. It is unmistakable with intricate marble carvings, coppertone tiled dome and 80 metre bell tower. Standing near this incredible piece of architectural art it is clear why it took 150 years to complete and now stands in almost perfect condition (slightly dirty on one side)

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Lunch was as gourmet as you can possible expect of two impoverished backpackers, milk and bread. No we didn't forget to include anything in that sentence! Sitting directly under the dome watching the passing parade of African street sellers, young Contiki tourers and elderly locals added sufficient flavour to make lunch a treat.

Gelato was in order en route to the Piazza della Signoria housing a replica of the statue of David and the palazzo Vecchio with an outdoor display of original marble statues. It did not become apparent until now how many magnificent original sculptures there are in Europe. Regardless of the quantity we are still thoroughly enjoying them, in particular those displayed outside where they seem to best capture your imagination.

Dinner was shortly to follow from a boutique supermarket similar to that found in DJs, Sydney only noone spoke Australian except us. We refrained from buying everything and instead armed ourselves with foccacia, cous cous, rissotto salad, ricotta, olives and the lemon (Steve borrowed). Outside the Odeon we again watched as children played in the square and American teenagers spilled out of the cinema threatening to give away the ending.

Unfortunately, Spiderman 3 is not the classic we were expecting but entertaining nonetheless, particularly when the crowd giggled with amusement as Spiderman leaps in front of the flying American flag before saving the day.

Day 2 - May 11

Steve woke to find that his mattress has been slowly leaking air and was therefore lying on the ground. This will need to be addressed as we cannot afford the number of teas required to subdue this situation otherwise.

With one objective for the day in mind we headed off to the Galeria Degli Uffizi complete with packed lunch and open mind. At the point were we had been standing in the queue for over 1 hour and we decided it was time to make friends with the 80 year old America couple in front of us, and tease everyone by bringing out a fully packed lunch. 30 minutes later and we were finally throwing ourselves into the greatest collection of Renaissance art in the local vacinity.

Uffizi is well worth the visit, particular given that the entire ceiling of the sculpture gallery is intricately frescoed. A great view of the river, Ponte Vecchio and our campsite can be seen from the end windows.

Unplanned, and by a stroke of luck, Camilla came across the one painting she has been scouring the galleries in search of due to indepth study at school. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593) Judith beheading Holophernes (one of the goryest and most confronting husband slayings on canvas). To compliment her book 'How to kill your husband, and other useful household hints' there is no wonder Steve hasn't been sleeping well. All the same the gallery impressed us with a variety of works and sculptures and as a climax we viewed Botocelli's 'Venus'.

Gelato was enjoyed at a nearby church step followed by extensive internet time then onto the Plazza della Signoria where the replica of David is presented outdoors. Whether it was simple absentmindedness or the distraction of scupted naked males, Camilla stacked it down the stairs twisting her ankle. With all the encouragement in the world she was coaxed across the plazza (50 steps) for dinner.

Sunset was enjoyed on the banks of the river with the Ponte Vecchio silhouetted like many of the postcards we had admired. It was a long day and deserved a good nights rest.

Day 3 - 12 May

Breakfast - Internet - Called Mums for Mothers Day - Lunch - Internet - Dinner - Sleep. No joke, this was the extent of it as we needed to catch up with ourselves and do little else.

Day 4 - 13 May

With Camilla harping in Steve's ear 'I really would love to spend some time in Tuscany', and Steve politely reminding her (repeatedly) 'dear, Florence is in Tuscany' we made a brilliant decision. Our options were an 40 euro per person afternoon visit to a Villa to taste wine or a 80 euro day trip (per person) to San Gimignano we decided to go it alone. Armed with the worst possible map you have ever seen we selected two destinations (noted to have events on in the local rag) with travel coming to the grand total of 15 euros (for the two of us) we set off.

Destination 1 - Casciano val de Pesa

Small town with historic walls, great view over tuscany, nothing whatsoever open on a Sunday and 2 kms from the Wine Fair we were determined to visit. After a relatively short, hot walk along the country road and following a number of local directions we arrived at Villa de Cotti's neighbour. Politely greeted the madame of the house welcomed us into her home and said she would help with directions in just 5 minutes. Almost 30 minutes later and having heard her arguing with her last guest she finally tended to our simple question. 'Where is Villa de Cotti, they have a wine fair on today and we would like to attend - by the way thank you for letting us look through your villa it is beautiful'. Please keep in mind that this conversation commenced as we were walking down the drive away from the house, she attempted to pursued us to stay and taste her wine, make us food etc. etc. then reluctantly pointed over our shoulder at Villa de Cotti 50 metres away. Our gratitude for her assistance was brief. Villa de Cotti (against all advertised indications) was closed, the end.

Back into town we sat for a victory lunch at having found our destination despite a lack of wine trade fair. Great food at a small family run trattoria in this quite, sometimes overlooked, town of Casciano was heartely enjoyed. Our next destination was a 30 minute bus ride away, we were optimistic still.

Destination 2 - Tavernelle

In search of the local music festival (advertised in the same magazine) we held our suspicions. With glee we were met with music as we stepped off the bus and made our way dirrectly into the town square. Feeling that we were in the heart of Tuscany the romance swept over us and we got re-married. If further explanation is required let us be clear, we left our real wedding rings at home but felt (preverbally) naked without them. Camilla is now adorned with a plain silver band indicating her undying affection (crazy) for Steve. Steve has a multicoloured mood ring which has been purchased in the vain hope that Camilla will be able to decipher amorous from travel fatigue. Pizza from the local take away was enhanced by the friendly shopkeep. After our meal we sat to chew through our books listening to the local vibes in the Piazza as the sun was setting.

Engrossed in our books we caught the bus by the hair of our chinny chin chin as Camilla glance (only for a fraction of a second) across the park to see the last bus of the night returning to Florence. LUCKY!

Posted by snchall 08:02 Archived in Italy Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Pisa

Stopover Spectacular

sunny 25 °C
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Leaving the beautiful coastline of the Cinque Terre behind we boarded the train to Pisa catching glimpses of the mediterranean all the way. Off in the distance it is possible to see the mountains where marble is mined and delivered in huge blocks numbered with red spray paint. We would only realise how significant it was to see the marble in this raw form once we set eyes on the finished product.

Pisa - 9 May (stopover before heading on to Florence)

Without an ongoing ticket we had not yet decided whether to remain in Pisa overnight. Although we had heard from many who have travelled their before that it lacks points of interest, on the contrary we found the walk through the markets and piazza from the station to be as good as any other city so far. Camilla received her first 'Bella' from the ladies in the fruit stalls which felt special as they delivered it with a smile.

Down a somewhat dingy street we caught our first glimps over a graffiti covered wall of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa gleaming in contrast to the brilliant blue sky and green grass. We entered the ritual conversation all tourists undertake at Pisa; 'No you push it over, no, I want to hold it up, no you first, oh alright but a feel like a dork...'. With gusto we joined the other 1000 tourists holding their arms in the air taking directions from accompanying photographers and produced the desired result.

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A packed lunch was enjoyed on the grass in the shadow of the Dome watching crowds of school children. Our tickets allowed us access into the brilliant cathedral and dome. Inside the cathedral we entered a deep discussion about the variations this particular one has with the other 8 - 10 major cathedrals we have seen so far. With sunlight beaming through the windows and deeply moving religious effigies we realised that each visit is entirely different even though the themes are the same. Steve exclaimed rather abruptly 'Camilla, I am sure we have seen this one before...', nevertheless it was exciting to be here.

By coincidence our visit to the Dome was in time for a demonstration of the acoustics by a trained singer. Luckily we had already climbed the narrow staircase to the higher level where for nearly a minute each time the vast space was filled with resonating tones from the singer below. As the sound trailed off it was impossible to relate what we heard to a human voice. Caught up with the romance and beauty of the place it was difficult to pull ourselves away from the square.

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We took a final moment to reflect on the beauty of the 900 year old structures, what it would sound like if the tower actually fell, and how many times a day the 'hold the tower up' photo is taken' we entered the nearest souvenir shop (totally out of character). A couple of nice postcards where first purchased and as we were leaving the store THEY WERE FOUND. On our list of must reads Camilla has at the very top the number 6 Harry Potter: The Half Blood Prince, Steve has been wishing to find Robert Louis Stevenson's classic, Treasure Island. THEY WERE SITTING NEXT TO EACH OTHER (in English)! Leaving them quietly on the shelf for the next customer... what are you talking about, screw the additional weight ... SOLD.

Walking back to the train station where we had paid to leave our large backpacks (stroke of genius from Camilla) we decided there would be little else gained from staying the night in Pisa. Outside of a not so swanky hotel was a near perfect original condition Bentley from what must have been the early 1600s. Well maybe not that old but we are talking first rate open wheeler, deep british green with leather straps holding in the engine (not that it is likely to jump out of the bonnet).

New books in hand we where hoping for an 8 hour train trip or some catastrophic delay, unfortunately, everything went to plan so we arrived in Florence within 1.5 hours.

Posted by snchall 07:28 Archived in Italy Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Cinque Terre

Levanto, Monterrosso, Lanvanzza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore

sunny 25 °C
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Our greatest delight on this trip so far has been the opportunity to be immaginative regarding our trip itinarary and work together to figure out how to get to the next destination. Only in the last few days in Menton had we even broached the topic of where to go next, the only decision made was that it was time for Italy.

At 5.30am we awoke to an alarm clock drowned out by the pitter pattering of rain on the embassy roof. If you have ever seen those tricks where the magician is in the box full of water and has to get untangled from the chains, it must look similar to a bystander to see us in wet weather mode ejecting ourselves from the tent.

In a ploom of feathers we managed to pack and make our way down the slippery 317 steps to the station in time. On our arrival to the platform we were greeted by our good friend sunshine. If nothing else, at least our morning wet weather preparation was good practice should it have been pouring.

Our train trip was a mixed bag of decisions, advice and some reluctance to fully commit to any real destination. At our time of departure we had on our person a total of one train ticket valid for the grand journey of 10 minutes across the Italian border. We were advised that purchasing tickets for regional trains on the other side is significantly more economical and thankfully that was the case.

10 minutes later, a few select words in English, French and the only Italian we know (Bounjourno) it was decided that we would go to Monterosso. On further examination of the train time table, a big smile at the surly ticket agent and we were to be seated for almost 5 hours without any food. Our train was boarding in 5 minutes so we took the risk and got on without adequate supplies. At least we had a destination.

Monterosso - 6 May

If we thought we liked pizza before we left for Italy, it was now a matter of life or death. You know you are in Italy when you can walk straight off the train into a pizzaria on the platform. Seated on the corner of the balcony overlooking a glorious sunny day on the Mediterranean we devoured two whole, thick based pizza with gusto. Camilla exclaimed in no uncertain terms that she will 'Take Italy one Margherita at a time'.

The first rude shock came from the expressionless hotelier at Monterosso (fancy pants hotel something-or-other) that the only camping to be found was at the previous station. Out came the big smiles and we asked for the best price possible on their smallest room. Realising that our entire daily budget would not come close we strode off galantly in search of Levanto leaving behind the mid afternoon sun and Monterosso for exploration the next day.

Levanto - Same day but full of Pizza

Outside of the train station was an easy to understand map that indicated Levanto was blessed with 5 campsites within walking distance. Only trouble was we could not figure out which way was up (truthfully it was time for a siesta after 5 hours on the train) so we remained staring at the map until help arrived.

Help was in the form of 4 decisive and well organised fellow backpackers in search of camping also. The conversation was struck between Camilla, Steve and Rob (NZ) travelling with Sarah (NZ), Kelly (NZ) and Gaelle (Fr) who work in the UK and enjoy short stints to exotic locations in continental Europe.

Before setting up the embassies we enjoyed our first (strong) Italien espresso then floated up to a well selected shared site.

Our new found companions headed off for the evening to walk between Levanto and Monterosso while we got lost for a while in the cheese and pasta section of the supermarket. After dinner we also went for a short hike (5 minutes) to watch the sun set behind a curtain of cloud. What more do you need to get excited about walking this famous coastline.

THE HIKE - Monterosso to Riomaggiore (The Cinque Terre) - 7 May

To commence the famous 12 km hike along the Cinque Terre coast through UNESCO heritage park we caught a train back to Monterosso. A quick loving glance at our first Italian pizzaria as we walked down to the beach to skim a few stones. While Rob, Sarah, Kelly and Gaelle went off to find some breakfast we warmed ourselves on the beach.

Rounding the first cape we could see south along the jutting penisulars where three of the five villages were visible. In a straight line to Riomaggiore it didn't look like much of a hike, together with the change in altitude from Monterosso (6m above sea level) to Lanvazza (4m above sea level) it should be a piece of cake. As we started setting the pace through lemon groves and around valleys Camilla read out the change in altitude for the first leg (6m to 140m+). Unfortunately the fresh ripe lemons were just out of reach as we struggled up the slippery path, thankfully a local farmer was selling Lemoncello which Rob gratefully paid top dollar for.

Puffing, the six of us came to Lanvanzza followed shortly by Rob and Sarah plunging into the ocean. By the looks on their faces it seemed a little fresh.

We ate up the kilometres and arrived hungry at Corniglia, set back high up from the sea overlooking the coast. Only moments earlier Steve exclaimed that it would be funny if they didn't sell any pizza. To our surprise it was infact difficult to find a cheap good feed of the national dish so we landed ourselves in a small cafe / bar for panini. A frozen chocolate yoghurt chaser was the order of the day for us, covered in fresh mint.

The path opened out a little as we passed alongside the railway overlooking a long pebble beach. Again we could hear the sound of pebbles and air popping below. At the end of the bay our feet were hurting and it seemed Rob and Sarah were due for another cool off. Perched high on the cliff the remaining four put our feet up and downed a few cookies while they swam below in the crystal clear water.

Thankfully the final stretch was a short 20 minutes along a well worn path. Signs informed us that it was possible to wear stilletos on this section, however they are forbidden on the rest of the track. Via Amore is the infamous stretch of path covered in graffiti declaring undying love between two romantics. The tradition started around 50 years ago and has since encouraged various fresco modern art.

Riomaggiore, like all of the towns along the Cinque Terre is postcard picture perfect with all the traditional cliches. Little fishing boats lined up neatly, trattoria diners run by local families, cats perched on flower pot lined window cills and cool narrow alleyways sheltered from the sun.

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In the late afternoon sun we seperated from the group who opted for the lavish (slightly above a 70 euro a day budget) boatride back to Levanto). The train ride gave teasing glimpses of the boat and bays as we ducked in and out of more than 20 tunnels along the coast.

Pre-dinner drinks was a great opportunity to chat to the guys without puffing and panting between sentences. A few bottles of wine, cheese and crispbread later and it was time to find our friendly local trattoria. Well fed by the end our rest that evening was well deserved.

The Cinque Terre is a fabulous introduction to Italian coastal living, enhanced exponentially by sharing the experience with 4 like minded and friendly travellers. We look forward to catching up with them in the UK if possible and will trade a few hundred photos then.

Posted by snchall 08:33 Archived in Italy Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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