A Travellerspoint blog

Touring Jordan

sunny 20 °C

The final chapter in our 11 week journey was an eight day tour of Jordan with travel company Peregrine Adventures. We flew in from Athens, landing around 2.30pm, and were picked up and transported to our hotel in Amman. This is a large, and very busy city which stretches for miles, and has a lot of traffic jams. Consequently our journey from the airport was very slow, much of it spent stationary in a traffic jam, and we didn't check in to our hotel till about 4.30pm. We learnt later on that Amman's population has grown exponentially in recent years, owing to the huge influx of refugees from Palestine, and more recently, Syria.
At 6pm we had a meeting with our tour guide Jasmin, a beautiful young woman wearing a gorgeous brightly -coloured head scarf , which over the course of the week changed every day, with a different colour scheme. We also met the other 10 members of our group; three other Australian couples (Sydney, Perth and Hong Kong), a Colombian couple and a British couple. Jasmin booked a table at the hotel restaurant, and we all ate together, getting to know our travel companions for the next seven days.
The next morning we departed Amman at 9.30am in our small 15 seater bus for the long 5 hour drive to Wadi Rum, down in the south of Jordan. Once we left the busy metropolis of Amman, and passed the airport, the road became the Desert Highway, and we gazed out the window to an endless vista of golden-red sand dunes. I had thought Crete was dry, but this landscape took arid to a whole new level. There were almost no trees, or in fact any vegetation at all. After a brief stop for a light lunch of salad at a roadside cafe, the landscape began to change to large golden-red rock formations, emerging from the desert floor and towering over the landscape. Around 3pm we arrived at the Wadi Rum visitor centre.
J - S and D Wadi Rum

J - S and D Wadi Rum


J-Wadi Rum1

J-Wadi Rum1

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A little further down the street, the bus pulled up and out we got to meet our 'lovely Bedouin friends', as Jasmin introduced them, who were accompanied by around 10 camels lying in the sand.
J-Bedouin and camels Wadi Rum

J-Bedouin and camels Wadi Rum


Jasmin demonstrated how to get on and off a camel, emphasising the need to hold on tight to the pommel in front of you, as you are suddenly thrust forward, then backward, as the camel rises to its feet. Then it was our turn. On Jasmin's insistence, I put my handbag and backpack in the back of the ute, thrusting my Ventolin into my pocket, just in case I turned out to be allergic to camels, then made the rather difficult manoeuvre of getting my right leg over the camel's back, so I could sit in the saddle. Once successfully on, I held tightly to the pommel, and up I went, first leaning precariously forward as his back legs went up, then backward as his front legs went up, then finally, relievedly horizontal. All the camels were joined together by ropes, with our Bedouin friends leading around three each, and off we went into the sunset.
J- Wadi Rum group camel ride

J- Wadi Rum group camel ride


There was much calling out of smart comments between our group as we all tried to adjust to this strange ride, and cope with the unpredictable vagaries of our camels. Mine kept seeing a small gap between two of his mates, and wanting to squeeze himself into the gap, forcing me to quickly fold my legs in front of the saddle as Jasmine had demonstrated, which I did not find very comfortable.
J-Sue camel ride

J-Sue camel ride


Group camel ride

Group camel ride

Sue camel ride2

Sue camel ride2


WE rode for an hour, with more camels brought along to join the group halfway through, as we were a couple short at the start. In the desert distance we could see a couple of open utes waiting for us - this was our transport to the Wadi Rum Luxury Camp we were staying in overnight. As we bounced along in the 5pm twilight, the desert was lined on both sides with huge rocks. At the base of these, every so often, there would be a sprinkling of tents - another of the many tourist camps spread across this region. Arriving at our camp clarified why it was named the "Luxury Camp'. Walkways lined with small trees, lighting and flower pots led to large tents, each containing its own ensuite.
J-Wadi Rum Glamping outside tent

J-Wadi Rum Glamping outside tent


When we entered our tent, it was like being in a four star hotel; large bed, furniture, heater and equally large ensuite. More 'glamping' than camping!
J- Glamping Wadi Rum

J- Glamping Wadi Rum

J-Wadi Rum Glamping ensuite

J-Wadi Rum Glamping ensuite


Dinner was sensational - a buffet with a vast array of fabulous middle eastern salads, roast potatoes, hommus, olives, babaganoush and chicken cooked in the ground, Bedouin-style, along with warm, freshly-cooked flat bread. For dessert there were a range of delicious small pastries; baklava, and many different tiny pastries filled with pistachios, almonds or cashews.
We slept well in our luxurious tent, and woke early, to peer out at another clear blue sky; the rising sun creating a rose tinge on the cliffs surrounding our camp. After a magnificent buffet breakfast with another enormous selection, including omelets cooked to order with your selection of fillings, we set off at 8.30am in our open jeeps to visit a variety of unusual rock formations and enormous sand dunes spread across Wadi Rum.J-Wadi Rum Camel, tree

J-Wadi Rum Camel, tree

J- Wadi Rum Sue and David2

J- Wadi Rum Sue and David2

J-Wadi Rum new friends

J-Wadi Rum new friends


At one stop one of the local men started hassling Jasmin, our guide. A protracted argument in Arabic ensued, with Jasmin holding her own calmly but firmly. After a while our three male drivers stood by, silently observing the discussion. Eventually one of them rang someone on his mobile phone, and handed his phone to the Bedouin, who spoke to the person on the other end for quite a while. By the end of this conversation the Bedouin was convinced, and Jasmin returned to our jeep and our group was able to leave. When we asked her what it was about, she didn't want to say much, but clearly a female guide in a male dominated culture is quite a rarity, and she often faces interrogation from others in the tourism industry who are suspicious of a woman doing a job that is mostly done by men in this country. Being young and pretty doesn't help either. The women in the group reassured Jasmin that she is not alone in facing this misogyny, and we all admired her resilience in a situation that she said occurs often.
After four hours of being sand blasted in the back of the open jeeps, we returned to our bus and drove to the old, disused Wadi Rum railway station, where the refurbished locomotive invokes the memory of the century-old conflict that helped shape the modern Middle East. In 1916, during World War I, much of the Arabic-speaking world was controlled by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Allies sought to force the Turks out of the region, urging the Sharif of Mecca to join the Allies and take up arms against the Ottomans in return for Arab independence. Hussein agreed, and over the course of the next two years, the Arabs assisted in a major war effort to defeat the Turks. Under the leadership of Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal—and with assistance from the illustrious T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”—the Arabs fought a guerilla-style war by interrupting train passages on the Hejaz Railway.
J- Wadi Rum original train station

J- Wadi Rum original train station


We continued on, and after a couple of hours the landscape changed from sand dunes to massive rock formations and our bus descended down a steep and windy road until we stopped at a lookout to view the landscape of Petra from above.
J-Petra from above

J-Petra from above


From there the bus took us to Little Petra, Jasmine explaining that this was to whet our appetite for the following day when we would visit Petra itself. Little Petra has some beautiful tombs carved into the rock faces that line the canyon as you enter.
J - Little Petra

J - Little Petra


All around the rocks you can see rough, uneven stairs carved into the cliffs; some ascending quite steeply to create a very precarious climb, and then suddenly disappearing at a high, narrow ledge. These stairs, Jasmin told us, were not to be climbed as they were dangerous and in the past tourists had fallen to terrible injury or death. As we were returning to the bus, one of the guides was remonstrating angrily with a couple of young men who had climbed such a staircase, and they quickly scrambled back down. This was an ominous precursor to the following day's events....
The next morning we left our beds at the Petra Moon Hotel, had a 6am breakfast and walked the 100m down the hill to the entrance gate. Jasmine purchased our tickets and we went straight in the gate shortly after 6.30am, our early entrance time specified by Jasmine to beat the crowds and make the most of the day so we could see all there was to see at this vast site. We walked down through the Siq, stopping every so often as Jasmin pointed out various features and explained the history of Petra. Petra was once a large, bustling city, established around the 4th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who established Petra as a major regional trading hub. They were masters of engineering, carving palatial chambers into the cliff faces, water channels into the rock and building dams, to build a sustainable water system for the city. The famous Kazneh structure was built in the 1st century AD and is believed to be the mausoleum of Nabataean king Aretas IV. At this time the population of Petra is estimated to have been around 20,000. This building was later known as 'The Treasury', because it was believed that the king's gold and treasures were stored in the urns at the top. Of course we had seen many photos of the Treasury, but the sight of it emerging as we walked through the Siq, just took your breath away.
J-Petra The Siq

J-Petra The Siq


J-Petra The Treasury

J-Petra The Treasury


In 106 AD Petra became part of the Roman Empire, and Roman buildings were added to the city, including a theatre, and later during the Byzantine era, christian churches.
J- Petra Roman theatre

J- Petra Roman theatre


When you reach the Treasury the canyon widens out into an open space, where many people hang out, taking photos. From here you turn right and the path takes you further into Petra, where you can see Roman buildings, Christian churches, and Nabataean tombs and the Monastery, a structure similar to the Treasury, but bigger. Opposite the Treasury was another steep, rough carved staircase, leading up to some ledges and arches, where a few people were climbing to take Instagram selfies; the impact increased by the sheer drops either side of the ledges, and the lack of any guard rails. Jasmin told us these climbs were not safe and not recommended, and she couldn't stop us from climbing them, but if we did so we had to take responsibility for ourselves. We left the Treasury and were following the path toward the Monastery when we saw an ambulance on the dusty road, heading toward the Treasury with lights flashing and sirens going. Shortly after we came across one of our party members who told us that an 18 year old girl had been climbing with some others on one of the staircases opposite the Treasury, and had taken a step backwards and fallen 80 metres. It was not known whether she had survived, but later we saw the ambulance making the return trip; inching its way very slowly along the gravel road. From this we assumed she was still alive, but probably had severe spinal injuries at the very least. Later one of our party asked a policeman how she was and the response was "very bad". A confronting reminder of how easily a life-changing accident can occur, and the need to be careful when travelling.
The Monastery is the furthermost point in Petra, and it is a climb of some 8000 carved stone steps. By the time we were climbing to the Monastery it was warm and sunny. I felt sorry for the donkeys who were hired to carry tourists up to the Monastery; invariably the tourists on their backs all looked as though they would benefit from walking. It was also quite steep in places and would have been quite scary on the back of a donkey, as they often go quite close to the edge of the stairs, beside a steep drop to the canyon floor. Walking along the canyon we occasionally would hear a donkey 'ee-awing'; the sound reverberating through the canyon as it bounced off the high stone walls. It was very loud, and I really understood how "Eey-oore" got his name!
J-Petra Sue walking

J-Petra Sue walking

J-Donkeys Petra

J-Donkeys Petra


When we reached the Monastery we saw some of our party sitting at a terrace cafe overlooking the famous site, so joined them to take in the view and have a refreshing fresh pomegranate and orange juice, before climbing further again to the lookout.
J- Petra David The Monastery

J- Petra David The Monastery


We headed back down to visit the Byzantine church, with its beautiful mosaic floors.
J-Petra Byzantine church mosaics

J-Petra Byzantine church mosaics


From there we head to the Royal Tombs, which were built as mausoleums by the Nabataeans.
J- Petra Royal Tombs

J- Petra Royal Tombs

The highest one is the Urn tomb, reached by climbing a stone staircase. As we climb we can hear a voice calling out "Souvenirs for sale, buy something for your wife, your mistress, your husband, your lover.."
As we reach the top the owner of the voice is revealed, a Bedouin who has set up a mattress right on the edge of the cliff in front of the tomb, from where he calls out his sales pitch. Behind him is a stall containing the usual collection of souvenirs.
J- Petra relaxed Bedouin

J- Petra relaxed Bedouin


People wander over to peruse the merchandise and he calls out the price from his bed. There is a tin provided for the money to be deposited, to save him getting up. One person announces that he needs change. The Bedouin gives a huge groan and slowly hauls himself up from his bed to make a sale and give change. Inside the tomb is a huge square cave, where you can see the rich colours of the rock, swirling across the ceiling and down the walls like an oil painting.
J-Petra rock colours Royal tombs

J-Petra rock colours Royal tombs


The next day our mini bus driver transported us further north to the Dead Sea, stopping at Shobak castle and Dana village reservation on the way.
Shobak castle is about one hour north of Petra, built in the midst of very arid hills by the Crusaders in 1115.J- View from Shobak castle

J- View from Shobak castle


The Crusaders withstood numerous attacks from the armies of Saladin (Salah ad Din) before succumbing in 1189 when they ran out of food and water after an 18-month siege.
Further north we stopped at the Dana Village, which overlooks the vast Dana Biosphere Reserve - Jordan's largest nature reserve. It was founded in 1989 and comprises 308 square kilometres.
J-View from Dana reservation

J-View from Dana reservation


We arrived at our hotel at the Dead Sea around 3.30pm, quickly checking in and changing into our bathers so we could 'do our floating' (as Jasmin called it) in the Dead Sea before the sunset at 5pm. Our hotel was huge, and as we headed down stairways toward the beach, we passed swimming pools of different shapes and sizes, surrounded by sun lounges and beach umbrellas before the path led down toward the pebbly and muddy shoreline of the vast Dead Sea. The swimming area was roped off, and we Aussies joked that it was a shark net, but once I entered the water and breast stroked out toward the rope where other members of our party were, I could see why. The water was very strange to swim in; you could not propel yourself through it easily as it was viscous, like swimming in honey. There were many signs lining the shore saying 'no swimming, only floating, stay near the shore, float on your back', and I quickly understood why. If you went on your front, you risked pitching forward, your face going into the water. The salt and sulphur content was so high that it would sting your eyes and mouth if it entered. So everyone lay on their back, their head and feet sticking straight up out of the water; so buoyant was the water.
J- Dead Sea floating

J- Dead Sea floating


By now it was after 4.30pm, and starting to get dark. The Dead Sea has its own micro climate however, so it was still relatively warm; by this time in any other part of Jordan a chill would have been entering the air. I could feel the skin on my arms burning a little, so I got out and had a shower under the open showers on the shore, following the instructions on the signs posted around that you need to wash the sea water from your skin straight away, as the high salt content can cause irritation. Nearby was a well full of mud from the floor of the sea, which supposedly makes your skin soft and smooth. Many people were smearing it on all over their bodies, (and their bathers), then washing it off in the sea. The Dead Sea is reputedly 400m below sea level, although these days it is undoubtedly lower, as the level continues to subside due to the continuing drought in Jordan
We headed back to our room for a shower, then went down to the bar for a drink. In Petra and Wadi Rum there was no alcohol in our hotels, so it seemed very novel to sit and have a glass of wine. Jordan is expensive though, as one Jordanian dinar is worth 2 Australian dollars. The prices on the menu were comparable to prices in Australian dollars, then when you actually paid your bill, the tax and service charge was added, so everything ended up costing more than double the Australian dollar equivalent. This made us realise that our tour with Peregrine was good value, as all breakfasts and most dinners were included. For lunch were were generally just eating flat bread and dip, or a falafel wrap. If we had travelled independently and paid for everything ourselves, it would have been much more expensive. For around $2400 pp for an 8 night tour including most meals, the Jordan Explorer with Peregrine was excellent value, and we were glad we had decided to do this tour, and not travel independently.
Dinner that night was the usual enormous buffet, and there were quite a few other Australians having dinner there. They stood out with their broad ocker accents, and their loud constant ribbing of one another with typical Australian humour. They seemed to be in a very large tour group; no doubt travelling on one of the large buses we had seen in the hotel carpark. WE all commented to one another how glad we were of our small, cozy group, and how much we enjoyed one another's company.
The following day we travelled from 400m below sea level, to about 800m above, to Mt Nebo, where Moses completed his pilgrimage from Jerusalem, and eventually died. At the top of Mt Nebo is a memorial to Moses, a Byzantine church, containing the most beautiful mosaics, and the Brazen Serpent monument.
J- Mt Nebo Memorial

J- Mt Nebo Memorial

J- Mt Nebo church mosaics

J- Mt Nebo church mosaics

J- Mt Nebo Brazen Serpent Monument

J- Mt Nebo Brazen Serpent Monument


For many, this is a religious, as well as historical site, and when we were there, a group of American christians were singing in gospel style before the serpent memorial, praising the Lord and uttering many alleluias. Next to this memorial was a lookout with views to Jericho, Jerusalem and the River Jordan. On this day it was a little hazy and hard to make out the panorama before us.
Mt Nebo directions Holy Land

Mt Nebo directions Holy Land


We head back to the hotel in Amman, where our trip to Jordan began. Later in the afternoon six of us head out to walk to town, where there are restaurants and shops. Jasmin recommends a restaurant for our dinner. We walk through the busy traffic- jammed streets, our group of three women and three men, all with grey or blonde hair, all in our sixties (well I'm not quite there but almost). We are the only tourists around; everyone we pass is a Jordanian, and they all stare, some saying 'welcome to Jordan'. Its a very long walk but finally we arrive in the 'downtown' precinct. where we see other tourists, bakeries with huge tantalising displays of baklava, and other almond and cashew -filled pastries. We find the recommended restaurant and it is a very casual, open air restaurant. There is no menu, the waiter brings everyone the same offering of hommus, babaganoush, salad, flat bread and falafels. For drinks there is bottled water. The food is delicious and the bill for the six of us comes to 16 dinar ($32AUD). After dinner we wander around for a while, looking in the souvenir shops. As usual we are all tired by 8pm and ready to head back to the hotel. Inexplicably we have been waking at 5am every morning this week, and by 7.30pm we are done. We need two taxis to get us all back, so we reply 'Yes' to the first Jordanian who asks if we want a taxi. He ropes in a mate to supply the second taxi, and three of us hop into each one. In our taxi there is no sign of a meter, and somehow the taxi driver's friend also seems to be coming with us in the front passenger seat. We haggle about the price most of the way back to the hotel. He wants 10 dinar, and so we offer 5. Once we arrive at the hotel the haggling continues. Eventually we give him 7 dinar and get out, which he accepts. When we tell Jasmin the next day she is horrified, and says we should only pay 4-5 dinar for a taxi from downtown.
Our final day of sight seeing we are driven to Jerash, the archeological park covering a huge area and providing a very clear idea of the original city in its heyday which stretched from about 1AD-500D. On the way to Jerash Jasmin tells us about the huge population growth which has occurred in Jordan, owing to its open borders and welcoming policy toward refugees. She explains that within most Jordanian families there are members from Palestine and/or Syria, and that the prevailing attitude of Jordanians toward refugees is one of a strong community, lending support to people feeling war in their countries, and a sentiment that this could be themselves, and would hope that other countries would welcome them in the same spirit. She asks what is our country's policy on refugees, and the general consensus is 'its complicated'. A discussion ensues, in which some group members try to explain Australia's refugee policy, and others discuss it amongst themselves. Jasmin looks quite disbelieving and horrified that people are imprisoned on remote islands outside of Australia because they tried to arrive by boat. It is interesting how difficult it is to explain such cruelty to someone who lives in a country right next door to war ravaged countries, which accepts without question the fundamental humanity of welcoming and assisting others in desperate situations.
We arrive in Jerash and walk through the obligatory tourist stalls, while locals try to convince us that we need to buy scarves, fridge magnets and other souvenirs. In many ways Jerash is like visiting Pompei or Ephesus, except there is much less protection of the sites. Beautiful mosaics lie bare and exposed to the weather and tourists, and you can wander freely among all the columns, streets, hippodromes and theatres.
J-Jerash columnade street

J-Jerash columnade street

J-Jerash Roman columns

J-Jerash Roman columns

J-Jerash crazy columns

J-Jerash crazy columns

J-Jerash pan shot

J-Jerash pan shot

J-Jerash Theatre musicians

J-Jerash Theatre musicians

J- Jerash theatre

J- Jerash theatre

J - Jerash entrance gate

J - Jerash entrance gate


J- Jerash Forum Cardo

J- Jerash Forum Cardo


We stop in the theatre for a group photo of the 12 of us, plus Jasmin.
Jerash group photo

Jerash group photo

J- Jerash Jasmin tour guide

J- Jerash Jasmin tour guide


We spend about three hours in Jerash; there is much to see and the site covers a huge area.
When we return to the hotel in Amman we farewell Jasmin and thank her for being our friendly tour guide. We make plans for a group dinner that evening at a downtown restaurant. Mark and David organise it all, booking the restaurant, finding out the address, and giving each of us two slips of paper; one with the address in English, the other in Arabic. At 6.30pm we all meet in the hotel lobby and synchronise our booking of three Ubers to get us there. I wish I had thought of booking Ubers for transport earlier on our trip - its so much easier to book and pay for, and cheaper. The only problem is that none of us have local SIM cards, so we have to use to hotel wi fi. We send the rest of the group outside to look for the Ubers arriving, while the three of us who have booked the Ubers stay inside the hotel, tracking each car on our phone. We make it to the restaurant and have a delicious meal of traditional Jordanian food. I have a more Moroccan style dish of lemon chicken tagine, but it is served like a pie, with a covering of balked flat bread. It is amazing! Again, this restaurant is alcohol free, so our livers get another detox.
We have enjoyed a fabulous time in Jordan. It is certainly a place for amazing sights and experiences, but one best negotiated on a tour I think. I would not like to drive in the crazy Amman traffic jams and I think all the logistics of the camel ride and jeep tour in Wadi Rum would be complex to organise yourself.

Posted by suel1960 22:46 Archived in Jordan Comments (5)

There's something about Greece!

Crete

sunny 22 °C

Every time I return to Greece I feel an instant affinity for this culture. Over the past 25 years we have visited many different parts of Greece; Athens and Meteora, as well as the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, Paros and Naxos. I have long wanted to visit Crete, and now my wish is granted.
In 2015 we travelled to Meteora from Albania in early September, and from there we caught the train to Athens, where we spent a few days before flying to Rhodes, then getting the ferry to Santorini, followed by Naxos. Everywhere was hot; particularly the islands. For me the constant 38 degree days made sight seeing sweaty and uncomfortable and I thought often about how I would like to return to Greece in autumn or winter when it would be much easier to walk around ancient sites and be more active, without ending up in one huge molten puddle of sweat.
This time we have flown to Crete from Malta via Athens on November 15, and the weather we arrive to is similar to the weather we left behind in Malta; albeit a lot less windy - it is partly cloudy and about 22 degrees each day.
We land in Heraklion and stay in the Lato Boutique hotel, overlooking the old Venetian harbor. The next morning we catch the bus to the Palace of Knossos; the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete which has been called Europe's oldest city. Knossos has a thick Neolithic layer indicating the site was a sequence of settlements before the Palace Period. The earliest stage was placed on bedrock and was settled as early as 7000BC.
The first actual palace construction dates back to around 1900 BC and was built in the Minoan period. As with the Neolithic remains, there are many Minoan palace remains right across Crete. The Knossos palace remains were discovered by the archeologist Minos Kalokairinos, an amateur archeologist at the end of the 19th century. With the need to preserve the site, and perhaps not knowing as much about authentic preservation as we know today, from 1922 on another archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, reconstructed some parts of the site, adding concrete finishes and making a lot of suppositions about what the original palace looked like, and the purpose of its various chambers. Opinions differ as to the success of his result, but we felt the modern, clean, concrete lines, and somewhat brightly painted columns that were added tended to jar with the rough stonework of the untouched remains, and we did not enjoy this visit as much as some of the Neolithic sites we visited on Malta, which had been preserved, but not added to. Some of the original frescoes were preserved, other copies of frescoes were added to the palace remains by Evans and his team. I believe this fresco is an original one, in what Evans labelled the 'throne room.
C- Frescoes Knossos

C- Frescoes Knossos


Many large earthenware pots also remain on the site, and these were used to store olive oil. They are all heavily decorated.
C-Earthenware pots Knossos

C-Earthenware pots Knossos


These two photos show the reception courtyard, where members of the royal family would welcome guests.
C-openair theatre Knossos

C-openair theatre Knossos

C-openair theatre 2 Knossos

C-openair theatre 2 Knossos


Heraklion is quite a busy and touristy town, and we have lunch at a very trendy cafe, where I eat vegan pancakes and drink a soy cappuccino which is undoubtedly one of the best coffees I have had since leaving home. The whole vibe of the cafe 'Crop', feels like we are back in Melbourne enjoying a sunny Saturday lunch. There is an extensive 'coffee menu' and similar dishes to Melbourne cafes. Not a traditional Greek dish in sight!

We spend the afternoon visiting the ancient Venetian port. Like Malta, Crete has been a sought after destination for various civilisations over the centuries. The fort was probably first established by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century and then by the second Byzantine period, a tower had been added, which was then destroyed in an earthquake in 1303. The Venetians colonised Crete from the 13th century and reinforced the harbour from the 1400's at the town they named Candia, building a long breakwater. This port engaged in the export trade on a very large scale. During the last two centuries of Venetian rule, it was the greatest harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its main exports were wine, olive oil, raisins, cheese, honey, beeswax, silk, cotton and salt, which was a Venetian monopoly. During this period Candia or Heraklion, was a completely walled city, with the fortifications including giant cisterns for water storage. The fort was built to be impenetrable; in some places the walls are 8m thick!
C - Entrance Venetianport Heraklion

C - Entrance Venetianport Heraklion


C- Venetian port Heraklion

C- Venetian port Heraklion

C- observation post Venetian port

C- observation post Venetian port


Inside the fortress are many different rooms showing the history of this building; ancient balled rocks, which had the dual function of being used to roll large pieces of stone for construction, and to fire out of cannons.
C - cannon balls Venetian port

C - cannon balls Venetian port

C - ancient pottery Venetian port

C - ancient pottery Venetian port

C - Inside Venetian port

C - Inside Venetian port


Heraklion is a vibrant and touristy town, with a lovely pedestrian-free centre, and loads of restaurants and cafes with outdoor courtyards. Although it is late November there are many tourists around, including at out hotel Lato Boutique, where the breakfast cafe each morning is full of hotel guests. Another hotel with a wonderful breakfast, and my favourite - the orange juicing machine, where you deliver oranges via a shute at the top, and you watch them go around inside, being squeezed of their juice, with the skins ejected into a bin underneath, and the juice strained of pips. If it didn't take up so much bench and under-bench space, we'd be tempted to get one at home! They also have lots of local delicacies - Cretan wild honey flavoured with thyme, many other sweet breads that I can't eat, traditional preserved fruits, as well as a variety of cooked eggs, pancakes and meats.
The next morning our hire car is delivered as we check out of our hotel. We sit with the manager of hire car company 'Athens Cars' in the reception area of the hotel, while he unfolds the map of Crete he has brought for us, and asks where we are headed, proceeding to give us tourist advice on places to visit and how to get there. We have hired an automatic, because the last thing you need when driving on the opposite side of the road, is to have to concentrate on changing gears with the opposite hand, in addition to everything else. He very kindly explains to us that they don't have many automatic cars, and this one has a few scratches and dints, so 'don't worry about it if it gets some minor damage' he says. I can hardly believe my ears. Everything is so helpful and relaxed. I cast my mind back to our hire car experience in Siena with Hertz, where the assistant kept trying to upgrade our costs, via extra insurance etc. etc. and charged us 10 euro extra for a map! And of course no advice, assistance, even basic courtesy was on offer. The guy from Athens cars tells us we can get back to Heraklion any time we like next Saturday - "Just leave the keys at hotel reception and I'll pick up the car on Sunday morning" he says. Its so relaxed and friendly, we instantly feel 100 times more confident about driving, in contrast to driving in Tuscany, which was super stressful. And (pause for effect)..... it's half the price!!! Six days hire in Tuscany cost 500 euro, here seven days costs 250 euro.
Of course, having not driven for about a month, and still finding the opposite side of the road messes with your head, we do have a couple of minor 'wrong side of the road' incidents in the first 20 minutes of driving, but the roads are quiet, and all we get is a couple of toots from the local drivers, and we are on our way to our Air Bnb apartment in the coastal village of Stalida, only 30km away from Heraklion.
The hardest thing about planning travel is knowing where to stay; you can only spend so much time reading the Lonely Planet guide or looking up the forums on Trip Advisor. We are not keen to drive big distances, which is why we choose this Air Bnb only 30km away. The apartment is very nice, with a gorgeous view, but by late November, most of the hotels, restaurants and supermarkets in this area have closed for the winter.
C- Stalida aprtment balcony view

C- Stalida aprtment balcony view


C-balcony breakfast Stalida

C-balcony breakfast Stalida


We find this out in a very realistic way when we decide to go out for dinner on our second evening there. Trip Advisor lists restaurants that are marked as being 'open', so off we drive to one in the nearby coastal village of Malia. When we get there, Malia is like a ghost town, the streets are deserted and we drive around the dark, silent town seeing shop after shop and restaurant with shutters closed and no hint of light. There is no sign of life anywhere. We head back to Hersonissos, a larger town closer to Heraklion. As we are approaching the town I spot a tavern on the side of the road, its lights on and people inside. We have a lovely meal there; trying a variety of local food; a large plate of tiny stuffed vine leaves, fried courgettes, Cretan sausages, steamed wild greens and David has fried haloumi. They also bring out complimentary bread, dip, and desserts, and also offer raki, which we refuse as one of us has to drive! When they realise I have a dairy allergy and can't eat the complimentary cake, they bring me a bowl of sweet preserved cherries. The two waiters are very friendly, and during quiet patches they come over to chat with us, explaining that in this area everything closes down from the end of October for winter. They tell us that only themselves and one other restaurant are open in the area, and in the town there will only be cafes and fast food places open. In the high season there are direct flights to Heraklion from other countries, but now all flights go through Athens, which makes a difference to the number of tourists. It is interesting how Malta was still open for business everywhere we went, although opening hours of tourist sites were shorter, while here on Crete, it's a very different scenario. The restaurant also has its own resident Grey African Macaw, who sits in his large cage, emitting a variety of whistles from time to time. The owner tells me he can also talk, but when I ask what he can say, the owner looks embarrassed and says he can't repeat it. The top of the macaw's cage is open, and one of the locals reaches in with his hand, which the bird hops onto and he is taken back to sit at the table on the bloke's shoulder.
We have booked a bike tour through Trip Advisor, which departs from the Lyttos Beach resort, just east of Hersonissos. We are the only two clients, and for 55 euros each we get a 4 hour private bike tour with Stelios from'Cycling Creta', heading away from the coast on farm tracks and back roads, up into the hills where we ride through olive groves, through the Aposelemis canyon, and up to a traditional hilltop village where we stop for a break of locally made herbal tea and traditional biscuits. There are some steep hills, but we are on e-bikes! I have never ridden an e-bike before, and it does feel quite strange when the motor kicks in, and you get a sudden burst of power. There are four levels of power to select from; econo (basic), tour, EMTB, and turbo boost, which is fantastic for the really steep hills that would normally leave me puffing and sweaty. David tries one hill without using the turbo boost, then decides that it's not such a great idea.
C - Bike ride from Hersonissos

C - Bike ride from Hersonissos

C - Cretan goats

C - Cretan goats

C - traditional Cretan windmill

C - traditional Cretan windmill

C - monastery window view

C - monastery window view


The following day we head further east, to some of the destinations that have been recommended by the car hire owner, and our Air Bnb host, Charis. We drive to the pretty little seaside village of Elounda, where there are still quite a few restaurants and cafes open.
C - Elounda

C - Elounda


It is an absolutely gorgeous day; a sunny 22 degrees with no wind and not a cloud in the sky. This village has quite a different vibe to Stalida, where we are staying, and I wish we had known the situation, we would have stayed here instead. There are people about, and there is still an all day boat trip to Spinalonga Island running, which unfortunately leaves just as we arrive in the town. Spinalonga is a small island where lepers were quarantined until 1957. It is a significant archeological site because of its strategic position protecting the port of Elounda, and it was settled by the Arabs from 827 to 961, then occupied by the Venetians from 1211 to 1669, who strengthened its fortifications. It was latter occupied by the Ottomans, then in 1903 set up to quarantine people suffering from leprosy. These people were fed and supported by the Greek government, but kept separate because of the fear of contagion that existed in those days. When Crete was occupied by the Germans during World War II, the island's inhabitants were still looked after by the Germans, who did not dare to install a guard on the island. This gave a little more freedom to the sick, who could hear the radio stations from Cairo and London undisturbed, which of course were strictly forbidden in the rest of Crete.C- Spinalonga Island

C- Spinalonga Island


We drive down to Agios Nikolaus, an even bigger town with a large port housing a cruise ship, and many tourists and cafes. We have lunch in a beautiful and very popular outdoor cafe overlooking the Voulismeni Lake.
C - Agios Nikolaus

C - Agios Nikolaus


The following day we transfer our accommodation to a cottage on an organic farm, around 30km inland from Heraklion. The cottage is behind the tiny village of Apostoli, and to reach it we drive through the narrow streets of the village, turning tight corners millimetres from stone walls while locals sit on chairs in the street enjoying the afternoon sun and regarding us with minor interest as we pass.
C-Apostoli village

C-Apostoli village


We stay in a beautiful stone cottage adjoining our host's, with our own entrance.
C-Orgon farm

C-Orgon farm

C-Orgon farm cottage

C-Orgon farm cottage


After settling in we go for a walk around the farm, past the olive groves and the chicken coop, and follow the rough, stony track up the hill to survey the landscape. Our host's dog accompanies us; bounding through the low scrub to sniff delightedly at the vegetation, then returning to us every so often. Although a medium-large size he is obviously a puppy, as he plays with everything, including a large puddle of water which he dashes in and out of, swiping at the water with his mouth and his paws. To the south east lie imposing mountains, grey and bone dry, their vegetation either non existent or so tiny as to be indiscernible. We deviate off the track to take this photo, and it's difficult walking as the vegetation consists of low, prickly bushes, and sharp stones.
C-hilltop view Apostoli

C-hilltop view Apostoli


Apparently in winter these mountain tops are snow-capped!
Each morning our host leaves a basket outside the door containing fresh bread, and produce from his farm; eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, capsicum, apples and oranges. The kitchen is well stocked with coffee makers and cooking equipment, and each morning we squeeze fresh orange juice with the electric juicer.
C-Organ farm cottage interior

C-Organ farm cottage interior


We spend the next couple of days exploring the area. Everywhere are olive trees and we regularly pass farmers on the roadside, nets spread on the ground, shaking the branches with a long implement to dislodge the olives. Apparently most of the olives in Crete are used to make olive oil.
C- olive tree

C- olive tree


Driving around the landscape is dominated by the green of the olive trees, with the grey of the barren, stone-covered mountains towering above.
C -Crete interior

C -Crete interior


Near the village of Myrtia we do a walk through a beautiful gorge.
C-Myrtia gorge 1jpg

C-Myrtia gorge 1jpg

C-Myrtia gorge 2

C-Myrtia gorge 2

C-Myrtia gorge3

C-Myrtia gorge3


In this wine growing area, the landscape is like a patchwork quilt; the grey-green of the olive groves contrasting with the golden autumn foliage of the grapevines.
C- Vineyards and olive groves

C- Vineyards and olive groves


In the villages, orange trees dominate in all of the gardens; laden with fruit, which are sweet and delicious to eat or juice.
We also drive to the southern coast, to the seaside village of Kastri. Once we leave the olive -covered plateau, the mountains along the southern coast are steep and angular. This part of Crete is the driest of all.
C- South coast view

C- South coast view


The beach itself consists of large pebbles, reminding us of beaches on the mediterranean coast of Turkey.
C- Kastri beach

C- Kastri beach


Driving around Crete is so fascinating. One minute you are driving on a reasonably wide road, the next minute you enter a village and the road seems to immediately narrow to half its width, while it winds past cafes, cars (often parked pretty much in the middle), elderly women (just standing there, or sitting on a chair having a chat) and opened car doors. No one seems too concerned about any of these obstacles; other drivers just calmly manouvre their way through. We stop in Viannos, where lives one one of the oldest trees in Crete. This plane tree is over a thousand years old.
C-Viannos village

C-Viannos village


Viannos has a very tragic history as this area suffered terribly at the hands of the German military during World War II. You can read the heart-breaking details of it here:
On our final evening in Apostoli our host takes us out for dinner at a local taverna where traditional Cretan music is performed. Our host Manolis sends us a message to say we will go to a taverna about 20 minutes drive away at 7.30 where Cretan music will be performed. We wait in our cottage until 7.30, but Manolis does not appear, so we go up and knock on his door. Eventually he appears, and we jump in his car. I have been hoping to meet his wife, but he tells us she is not coming. Off we set, Manolis tearing around the windy roads with their hairpin bends, at breakneck speed. At one point he slows down and asks if we would like to go and see his friend's raki distillery on the way, or go straight to the restaurant. To be honest, we haven't been swept away by the raki that is served in restaurants before you leave, although it is clear that the Cretans are highly enamoured with it. We are also famished by this stage, so ask if we can go straight to the restaurant. "No problem!" Manolis exclaims, and we roar off again, arriving at the restaurant at 8pm. As we arrive, he tells us there will probably be no-one else there, as locals do not go out to eat until after 9pm, after they've finished work, and the shops have closed. But he says, the restaurant told him the music will start at 8.30pm, so "no problem, we can chat and eat before the music starts". As predicted, we are the only customers in the restaurant. We eat some delicious food accompanied by a very fine bottle of organic local red wine, that Manolis recommends. About 8.30 a couple of locals enter, and finally around 9pm the musicians arrive, accompanied by another woman, who is the American aunt of one of the musicians. They sit at the table beside us, and soon wine and food is being delivered to their table. I realise we are going to have to wait still longer - this could be a late night. One of the other musicians is a friend of Manolis, and there is much conversation between their table and ours - mostly in Greek. The American woman turns around and chats to us; she was married to a Cretan who died a couple of years ago, and she now divides her time between Crete and Boston.
Eventually they finish their meal and take out their instruments, beginning to play while still sitting at the table. It is very relaxed and intimate - appropriate given the small number of customers, and we are the only people really listening. The instruments played are the lyra: a three stringed bowed instrument, that is a similar size to the violin but held vertically and pear-shaped, and has a sound that is a cross between the violin and the Persian Kamancheh. The male musician plays both a laouto; a Cretan version of the lute, and later on he pulls out a smaller plucked instrument, which has a thinner, higher and more nasal sound than the laouto. The female musician sings and plays a drum, then later her husband (on the lyra) takes a break, and she plays laouto, accompanying the laouto player while he switches to the smaller instrument I just described. Here is some more information on the lyra and laouto
Here also is a link to hear this group performing; Eran
The music has a very Persian sound. To my ear, it shows a lot of Arabic influences- the use of non-western scales, the extreme amount of ornamentation in both the stringed instruments and the singing, and the very eastern sound of the instruments themselves. It is quite different to traditional Greek music, reflecting Crete's very southern geographic location. Manolis sings along quietly with all of the traditional Cretan songs - they are all well known in his culture, he tells us later. The vocal style is very nasal, similar to eastern singing styles heard in Turkey and throughout the Middle East. Manolis tells us there is also a traditional Cretan singing known as rizitika, an a cappella style that is also popular.
Our final day in Crete we have a leisurely morning, eating a late breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, omelets, and fresh bread, all supplies delivered by Manolis, then pack up and do some more sight seeing of the beautiful countryside south of Heralkion, including the traditional village of Archanes, where we visit the small archeological museum. Many Minoan buildings and a small palace were excavated here. The archeological museum houses stone pottery, Minoan ornaments and skeletons found nearby in Fourni necropolis, Anemospilia and Archane's Minoan palace.
We complete our stay in Crete back in Heraklion for one night before we fly out. We have dinner at the very popular restaurant Peskesi, where we drink some lovely Cretan red wine, available by the glass, and eat some truly delicious food. I have chicken with home made pasta and olives, and for dessert we share a beautiful pastry flavoured with honey and pistachios. When the complimentary raki is brought out, it is flavoured with musk.
Overall we have enjoyed Crete immensely. It has been a good time to visit - not too busy, and perfect weather of around 20 degrees each day, with the overnight temperatures a little cooler inland. We did find however, that we were not able to visit any of the wineries - which is another popular tourist activity, as the wine here is lovely, and there are some grape varieties only found in Crete, such as Kotsifali (delicious). So if you wanted to do that, and eat out in Hersonissos, it might be better to visit in October. From the end of October to early April, most restaurants in the small coastal villages close down, unable to afford to run during the low season, and also because many of them also grow olives, and the olive picking season is in November. All the Greeks we have met have been incredibly friendly, kind and helpful.

Posted by suel1960 07:45 Archived in Greece Comments (1)

Magical Malta!

all seasons in one day 20 °C

In our quest to head further south as the weather on the Amalfi coast turned rainy and windy in early November, I remembered an article I had read in a Melbourne newspaper about Malta. The article had piqued my interest; Malta sounded fascinating, so we decided to go there. A bonus being that it is much further south; just below Sicily. On Monday November 4th, we flew to Malta; a flight that took just over one hour from Naples.
Our final evening in Amalfi had a very musical flavour, as we ate in a local pizzeria, the background music consisted of all the 'classic' opera hits 'Oh sole mio', 'Funiculi, funicula', 'La donna mobile' etc. All the waiters, and even the chef were singing along, clearly enjoying themselves immensely, and sounding pretty good too. After dinner we went to a concert in the cathedral, put on by a visiting Japanese choir and the local Amalfi church choir. It was a very fitting end to our time in Italy, the country where opera began, where a simple conversation contains much drama and musical inflection, and seldom seems to be possible in a calm, quiet manner.

It took us nearly four hours to get to the airport the next morning. This involved another long bus journey from Amalfi to Salerno, which was not long in distance - only about 25km, but took 1 hour 15 as the bus wound its way around the coastal road, stopping frequently to avoid head on collisions with cars and other buses and stopping at red lights for the sections of the road that are one way. Then we had a 90 minute train trip from Salerno to Naples, and finally a 15 minute bus ride to the airport, the bus packed to the gills with people and suitcases.
We landed at Malta's international airport about 5.30pm, and were settled into our absolutely beautiful boutique hotel, 'Ursulino Valletta' by 6.30pm. Valletta is a beautiful old city, with a fascinating history.
Here are a few facts about Malta that I did not know, and found interesting to learn.

  • Malta is only 70km south of Sicily.
  • Malta is a member of the Commonwealth, as the British installed their armed forces here in the 1870s at Malta's request, to prevent an attempted takeover by France. The benefit to us is that this means they drive on the left hand side of the road, and everyone speaks English, as their second language to Maltese.
  • Because of its position, Malta has been settled by different countries over the centuries, including the Byzantines, the Romans, the Arabs, the Order of the Knights of St John, and the English. There were also attempted takeovers by the French and the Ottomans.
  • Malta has a long and fascinating history, with many archeological sites and relics from different periods, beginning around 5000BC with catacombs and ancient temples that were constructed earlier the Egyptian pyramids, through to the Knights of St John, who fled Rhodes to settle in Malta and built the beautiful town of Valletta in the 1570s, then World War II when Maltese and British forces held out for three years against sustained air attack by German and Italian forces, to Malta's independence and development as a fantastic tourist destination and the beautiful country it is today.

After Italy, which we loved, Malta seems even more tourist friendly. Valletta is a town mostly set up for tourists, its beautiful palaces and townhouses were deserted by the locals after massive destruction by bombing during World War II, but since then they have returned and converted many into beautiful boutique hotels and apartments. Walking around Valletta you can see pockets of the city which are still undergoing massive renovation. All the buildings are constructed from a beautiful sand coloured limestone, and have the characteristic Maltese balcony.
M - Valletta street

M - Valletta street

M - Maltese balconies Valletta

M - Maltese balconies Valletta


The streets are mostly narrow to provide protection from the hot sun, as the warm weather begins in April/May and continues to October/November. The buildings are all narrow, about 4 stories high, and many of the hotels have converted their rooftop into a beautiful terrace for breakfast in the morning, and sunset aperitifs in the evening. Our hotel is one such example, and the first morning when I climb up the spiral staircase from the top floor and walk out onto the terrace for breakfast my immediate "Oh, wow" doesn't even begin to encapsulate what a stunning outlook this on such a beautiful sunny morning.
M - rooftop breakfast Valletta

M - rooftop breakfast Valletta


This reminds us of our trip to Morocco a few years ago, where breakfast on the rooftop of the riad was a frequent tradition, and is a reminder of the Arabic heritage of Malta, along with the Maltese language which contains many Arabic influences.
We spend two nights in this beautiful hotel, enjoying the incredibly large rooms, delicious breakfast with amazing views, and the complimentary afternoon tea with aperitifs on the rooftop balcony.
M - Hotel drinks Valletta

M - Hotel drinks Valletta


During the day we wander around in the warm, 23 degree sunshine, visiting the archeological museum and the Upper Barrakka Gardens; making sure we are there at 12noon when they perform the daily firing of the cannon.
M- Upper Barrakka Gardens

M- Upper Barrakka Gardens

M- Valletta from Saluting Battery

M- Valletta from Saluting Battery

M- Valletta from Upper Barrakka gardens

M- Valletta from Upper Barrakka gardens

This is done with a high degree of ceremony; two soldiers march out in full uniform and step through each stage of arming the cannon with great aplomb and military precision. The whole process is so broken down into small steps, after a while my mind drifts a little, so I get a huge shock when suddenly one of the soldiers does a loud call, which is followed by a massive boom and the cannon is fired! David almost misses it too, but he does manage to capture the remaining puff of smoke, once he collects his wits!
M- Saluting Battery

M- Saluting Battery

M - Valletta - overlooking breakwater

M - Valletta - overlooking breakwater


We also take the ferry to the 'three cities'; three small peninsulas on the other side of the grand harbour. We wander through Vittorioso, visiting Fort St Angelo, a strategic fort of much significance in Malta's military history, the Maritime museum and the Inquisitors Palace.
M- Vittoriosa

M- Vittoriosa

M- Valletta from Fort St Angelo

M- Valletta from Fort St Angelo


We dine out and try traditional Maltese food; ftira, which is like pizza, but a thicker, heartier dough, spread with tomato paste and a variety of toppings. Other traditional foods include rabbit stew (which we don't try), lots of seafood dishes (which we do) and beautiful almond biscuits and pastries filled with dates and spices. We also try a 'Kinnie'; a traditional Maltese soft drink made from oranges, mixed with some spices. It is nowhere near as sweet as other orange soft drinks; at first it doesn't really appeal, but we try another a few days later and decide it definitely is an 'acquired taste'.
There is really nothing to dislike about Valletta - the city is quite small and very walkable, with many pedestrian-only streets which allow no vehicles - not even motor scooters! There are loads of lovely cafes and restaurants, heaps of historical attractions, and you can catch a bus or taxi to anywhere on Malta, just by walking to the city gate where there is a large and well organised bus station and taxi booking office.
M- Valletta street2

M- Valletta street2


M - Valletta street3

M - Valletta street3


M - street corner Valletta

M - street corner Valletta


We catch the bus out to the ancient citadel of Mdina, which was the capital of Malta back in ancient and medieval times. It is surrounded by tall bastion fortifications, and a very wide ditch, now beautifully landscaped.
M- Mdina city gate

M- Mdina city gate


The centrepiece of Mdina is the beautiful St Pauls Cathedral, rebuilt from the original church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693.
M- St Pauls Cathedral Mdina

M- St Pauls Cathedral Mdina

M- St Pauls Cathedral -inside Malta

M- St Pauls Cathedral -inside Malta


The town is very quiet, with a small number of cafes, galleries and souvenir shops, housed within the ancient stone walls. Much of it is residential, and you can rent an apartment here.
M - horse and carriage Mdina

M - horse and carriage Mdina


Right next to the Mdina is the town of Rabat, where St Pauls catacombs are located, as during Roman times, burial was illegal within the Mdina. These ancient burial sites date from late Roman and Byzantine times, and were in use up until the 4th century AD. There are tunnels and tunnels, all containing remains of people, and in the case of the wealthy ones, some of their prized possessions. The level of planning that was needed to organise all these underground tombs is quite extraordinary. The catacombs are separated into different religions, including Jewish and Christian tombs.
M- St Pauls Catacombs1

M- St Pauls Catacombs1

M - St Pauls Catacombs2

M - St Pauls Catacombs2

Our next Maltese destination is the island of Gozo, which is a smaller island to the north-west. To get there we walk out to the city gate of Valletta and pay a fixed price of 37 euro at the taxi booking office. The trip to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa takes just under an hour, after which we transfer straight onto a huge ferry, which does the crossing in about 30 minutes. It's a beautiful sunny day, but a bit windy, so we sit inside and enjoy the view. We catch a taxi from the Gozo ferry terminal to our Air Bnb accommodation in the beachside town of Marsalforn. Our townhouse, with its bright green front door, overlooks the sea, and has an interesting layout, owing to its very narrow dimensions.
G - apartment Gozo

G - apartment Gozo


When you open the front door, you walk straight into the kitchen, which is tiny, and best occupied by one person at a time. Up one flight of stairs is the living room, with a toilet coming off it. The next flight up is the bedroom, most of which is taken up by the king sized bed. It also has a toilet. Finding space to store our luggage is quite a challenge. Finally on the top floor is the shower, a utility room with washing machine, and a larger balcony. Staying here involves leaving various belongings on various different floors and a lot of marching up and down the stairs - particularly if you forget something. Cooking and washing up in the tiny kitchen is quite a challenge, as there is little bench space or room to manoeuvre. Somehow I manage to knock the glass coffee plunger off the bench with my elbow as I turn around from washing up the dishes.
Marsalforn is a pretty little tourist spot, which would be very busy and popular in the summer, with its many waterfront restaurants and beautiful rock pools.
G - rock pools Marsalforn

G - rock pools Marsalforn

G - beach cliffs Marsalforn

G - beach cliffs Marsalforn


There are a multitude of wonderful walking trails across Gozo, a couple of which begin from near our apartment, however the weather is now like a Melbourne November - up and down. We wake up to a clear blue sky, and an hour or two later when set off to walk along the coast to see the salt pans, dark clouds loom ominously on the horizon. Within minutes it begins to rain, accompanied by a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. We quickly retreat to our apartment, but do manage to get one photo first.
G - salt pans Gozo

G - salt pans Gozo


Online we find a local winery that does a tour, tastings and food every Saturday for 16 euro pp. This being Saturday November 9, we ring and book, and by noon the rain has stopped, so we walk the 2km to the winery. The tour is very entertaining, the owner is quite a character. It is actually an organic farm where George and his family grow oranges, olives, grape vines, keep bees, chooks and goats (we even saw a couple of emus!). He grew up here with his parents, and stayed away for many years in his twenties, but returned to take over and expand the farm to include wine making, and an organic ethos and practice. He is very down to earth, and passionate about the importance of not using insecticides, as they kill the bees, which are so important for our entire ecology. Finally we sit down to a delightful lunch of bread, accompanied by his olive oil, his traditional tomato kunnserva, salad, salamis, home grown olives, and sun dried tomatoes, accompanied by very large tastings of his own sauvignon blanc, rose, and two different red wines. Amongst this he talks to us about how to smell wine, taste wine, how to open a bottle of wine with a corkscrew, even the correct way to hold a wine glass. The food and wine servings are very generous, and we sit opposite three people whom we chat to over lunch. It is a very pleasant way to spend a rather windy damp Saturday afternoon. Of the three people we befriend, two are a couple who moved to Gozo a couple of years ago. He is Italian and she is British. Their friend who is visiting is American.
The next day also dawns fine and sunny, but this time the weather holds, so we set off for an 8km walk to Ramla Bay, via the Ggantija Temples.
Gozo is covered in walking trails, most of which are concreted and seem to go straight up hills, rather than winding around the contours. Given their long hot summers, both Malta and Gozo are surprisingly green, but they do have an abundance of cacti, which grow alongside the paths and out of the drystone walls which criss cross the countryside.
G - walking Gozo

G - walking Gozo

G - walking trail Gozo

G - walking trail Gozo


Our walking trail takes us up the top of a hill, where we suddenly enter a piazza around a church. Just down the road is the Ta' Kola windmill, which dates back to 1725, When the wind was favourable for the mill to be operated, the miller would let the locals know by blowing through a triton-shell, and villagers would then bring their cereals to be ground into flour.
G- Ta' Kola windmill Gozo

G- Ta' Kola windmill Gozo

G- Ta' Kola windmill2 Gozo

G- Ta' Kola windmill2 Gozo


Further down the road is one of the many ancient temple sites on Gozo and Malta. These are the Ġgantija Temples and this site is considered one of the oldest free standing monuments in the world, preceding Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
G- Ggantija temples Gozo

G- Ggantija temples Gozo


G - Ggantija temples2

G - Ggantija temples2


The site dates back to between 3600 and 3200 BC, and no -one really knows why these temples were built, or what happened to the people who built them. Evidence of rituals and ceremonies is clear, and a clear link to a culture based on agriculture.
After touring the temples, we continue our walk down country lanes, enjoying the sunshine. We stop and sit on a stone wall to eat our lunch, and a couple of dogs from a nearby farm come out to bark at us, then stand for a while, checking us out.
G- stone wall Gozo

G- stone wall Gozo


We reach the bottom of the hill and follow the road to the beautiful Ramla Beach, which is very popular today, with a few people coming to swim or lie on the warm sand.
G - Ramla Beach Gozo

G - Ramla Beach Gozo


While we are sitting on the beach enjoying the sun, we notice some people walking on a trail high above, leading toward Marsalforn, where we want to go. We don't want to walk the official trail we came on, a whole 8km back, and the trail they are following seemingly leads straight back to the town we are staying in, over the next hill. We decide to give it a go, and climb up the steep path, high above the beach.
G - Ramla Bay view Gozo

G - Ramla Bay view Gozo


On reaching the top we arrive at a very narrow saddle, with a steep drop to the other side. This is not great for my fear of heights, so we head back down to the beach and this time use google maps to follow the road back to Marsalforn.
That evening as we are having dinner I receive a text from our hosts telling us that the weather is going to sharply deteriorate over the next couple of days, and we need to 'batten down the hatches' as there is very bad weather coming in from Tunisia, with the potential to become a 'Mediterranean Tropical-like cyclone'. 'Torrential rainfall' and 'gale force winds' doesn't sound ideal for our final day on Gozo, and also leaves us a little concerned as to whether the ferry will be running on Tuesday for our return to Malta.
Monday November 11th dawns clear and calm despite the ominous weather predictions, so we walk down to the bus stop and catch the 310 bus to Victoria, the town in the centre of Gozo which surrounds the ancient citadelle. By the time we get off the bus, the wind has picked up, and by the time we are at the top of the cittadelle, it is galloping along at 50kmh. The cittadelle originated during the Bronze Age, around 1500BC and its current limestone fortifications were built by the Aragonese in the 1600s. ItTo sum has protected most of its inhabitants from attack over the centuries, some unfortunately being captured and taken into slavery.
G - view from Rabat citadelle Gozo

G - view from Rabat citadelle Gozo


We have a coffee and do some shopping as the clouds darken and it begins to rain. Our bus returns us to our apartment just in time as the front moves in and our view of the sea is obliterated by torrential rain, and thick cloud, punctuated with flashes of lightning. We settle in for a quiet afternoon and evening. Fortunately we are prepared with a nice bottle of red, purchased from our winery tour on Saturday!
On our host's advice we plan an early departure the following morning, as the weather is predicted to worsen in the afternoon, increasing the risk that the ferry may be cancelled. The waves in front of our apartment don't look too bad, but our 9am taxi takes us to the south-facing harbour on the other side of the island, and as soon as we round the corner the view of the harbour is grim; dark and angry-looking white-capped waves stretch into the distance. As soon as the ferry leaves the harbour, it is rolling heavily from side to side. My suitcase and the vacant chairs at our table all slide across the floor toward the other passengers, who grab them. For the next 25 minutes we roll from side to side, the horizon dipping and swaying. Some passengers try to go outside to take photos, but become stuck trying to open the door, as they stumble backward and forward with the overpowering pitching of the boat. David rescues one woman who is stuck in the doorway, then everyone plants their bottom firmly on a chair and grips their luggage tightly.
G- Gozo-Malta ferry

G- Gozo-Malta ferry

While filming the video above, I almost tip off my chair with one particularly large roll. I would love to have filmed the chairs and luggage sliding from side to side as well, but I was too busy hanging on to the table and trying to stay upright.
We return to Valletta where the wind is blowing wildly down the main streets and it is a cool 16 degrees. Lunch at our favourite cafe no. 43 in Merchant St does not disappoint; it is Australian owned, sells coffee with soy or oat milk, and has tasty healthy wraps and salads. Plus today it has a sign which says:
WE
HAVE
SOUP
As a plus it is pumpkin, AND vegan! Irresistible! And delicious!
We have a nothing afternoon planned; the weather is too inclement to do much, and I have booked a podiatry appointment, so David goes to the gym.
About 2pm we receive a message from our hosts on Gozo to say that the ferry service has now been suspended because of the wind, so we are very glad we made the decision to leave early.
We have two more days on Malta. Wednesday 13th is spent around Valletta as it is still quite windy with intermittent showers We visit St Johns Co-Cathedral; a plain limestone edifice on the outside, but entry reveals Baroque ornamentation and beauty rich in detail and massive in scale.
M- St Johns Co-Cathedral outside

M- St Johns Co-Cathedral outside


The entire ceiling is covered in frescoes, while the floors are all marble. There are a number of small chapels adjacent to the main nave; each one dedicated to a different European region, in recognition of the fact that it was built for the knights of St John who were noblemen from different parts of Europe.
M - St Johns Co-Cathedral ceiling

M - St Johns Co-Cathedral ceiling

M- St Johns Co-Cathedral walls:floor

M- St Johns Co-Cathedral walls:floor


The famous Italian painter known as Caravaggio lived in Valletta for a few years and two of his most famous paintings hang in the oratory of the cathedral; his 'Beheading of John the Baptist,' which is his largest painting, and it is huge, and 'St Jerome'. Both are rich in detail and showcase his clever use of light to bring colour and life to his paintings.
From there we visit the Grand Masters Palace, which was constructed by the Order of St John and served as the official residence for the grand masters of the Knights of St John, until it became the Governor's palace, then later used as the seat of parliament. It houses many art works and rich tapestries, as well as the Armoury, which is an extensive collection of armour and weapons used by the Knights of St John.
M- Grand Masters Palance Armoury

M- Grand Masters Palance Armoury


We continue to wander around Valletta, right down to the Fort of St Elmo which sits at the tip of the peninsula, and has been used in a number of films, including the 70's classic 'Midnight Express'.
M - Fort Elmo view

M - Fort Elmo view

M - St Pauls Cathedral

M - St Pauls Cathedral


Despite the blues skies you can see in the photos, it is considerably cooler in Valletta than it was a week ago, now only around 16 degrees, still with a stiff breeze and the odd passing shower.
The weather on Thursday November 14 has improved enough for us to do the walk we have been wanting to do on Malta; the Dingli cliffs walk. The Visit Malta website tells us to catch the number 52 bus to Dingli, and get off at the stop named 'Cliffs', outside the Interpretive centre. The bus ride is around 30 minutes from Valletta, when suddenly someone calls out 'Dingli cliffs' and most of the remaining passengers pile off. We are still in the town of Dingli and there is no interpretive centre, but along with everyone else, we follow the signs to Dingli cliffs, where sits the interpretive centre, opposite a bus stop for the bus route 201. The bus stop is not called 'cliffs', and the interpretive centre is closed. So, a bit of misinformation, but never-the-less, we set off on the 12km walk, heading south along the cliff top toward the Blue Grotto. As we are walking along the west coast, the wind is still very fierce, but it is sunny and around 20 degrees, so we soon get quite warm walking. The tall limestone cliffs sit high above the sea in some places, and in others there is more of a terraced effect going down to the water, with much of the land cultivated for vegetables and olive groves.
M- Dingli cliffs

M- Dingli cliffs

M- David Dingli cliffs

M- David Dingli cliffs

M- Coastal walk Malta

M- Coastal walk Malta


On one small promontory is the remains of a village from the Bronze Age, and there are a couple of small churches at various points along the path, dating from the 18th century.
M- OurLady of Mt Carmel church Malta

M- OurLady of Mt Carmel church Malta


Fortunately we bought some traditional Maltese fig and orange biscuits yesterday, and I packed them this morning, so we sit on a low wall and eat a couple, as this is the only lunch it looks like we will get. We have not passed any villages or cafes. We continue our walk, which finishes at the small village of Wied-iz-Zurrieq, where, on calmer days, you can hire a boat to go and see the natural arch formation known as the Blue Grotto. Unfortunately from the coast, you can only see the entrance to the site.
M- Blue Grotto Malta

M- Blue Grotto Malta


From here we catch the no. 74 bus back to Valletta.
To sum up Malta - we loved it! Very tourist friendly. Perfect place to visit in early spring or late Autumn and still get decent weather. I think it would be very hot in June/July/August so I would avoid it in the summer. One of the locals told us they've experienced mid 20's on Christmas Day. Our response? So have we!!

Posted by suel1960 08:48 Archived in Malta Comments (1)

Naples and the Amalfi coast

sunny 24 °C

Having spent a week walking in the cold and damp in Bavaria a couple of weeks previously, we have altered our loose plans and decided to head south through Italy. Previously, after Bavaria we were planning to go back to Austria and visit Salzburg, Halstatt, then head south to Slovenia and down through the Balkans to Greece. Weather research however indicates that the sudden cold snap in Bavaria has been replicated further east, and warmer temperatures lie south in Italy. So after a week in Tuscany, where it has been mostly sunny and around 20 degrees, we catch the fast train to Naples, which the weather apps tell me is sunny and around 24 each day.
After the gentle, subtle ambience of Tuscany, Naples is a shock. The light is harsher, the sun warmer, the sky bluer and the city is louder.... and dirtier! As we trundle our suitcases up the maze of narrow cobblestone streets in search of our hotel, motorbikes and taxis whizz past at breakneck speed, tooting furiously. I drag my suitcase along, hoping the wheels survive the rough cobblestones, whilst concentrating on dodging vehicles, people, dog pooh and rubbish. Finally we reach the address in Via de Tribulani, in the historical centre. We wander down a laneway that leads to an underground tour of Naples, looking for number 62. Beside the laneway is a huge wooden door, so we go through to find a box which houses a seat and a CCTV monitor. On the window is a tiny sign with the name of the BnB we are looking for and '4th floor' in brackets. To our right is a grimy lift door, and beside it, a concrete staircase. We just manage to squeeze ourselves and our two suitcases into the tiny lift, press '4' and the lift begins its agonisingly slow, creaking ascent. If I was a praying person, I would pray for it to reach the top. Instead I just fervently hope. Eventually it shudders to a halt and we step out onto a 'Welcome' mat, up a couple more stairs to ring the bell at the door and we are ushered into a beautiful BnB by our Italian host, who shows us our large room and ensuite, with generous sized French windows on two sides of the bedroom. Despite the apparently small size of the entire building, the bathroom is one of the largest we have experienced so far in our entire European journey. As soon as our host leaves I open the windows to let in some fresh air. The noise from the street blasts straight up into our room. That night we sleep with the windows shut until David gets up at some point and opens one, then shuts it again, as the sound of bottles being thrown, people yelling and cars tooting immediately permeates the room.
The next day we set off to Pompei. From Naples, this is reached by train, on the Circumvesuviana train line, which is downstairs from the main Napoli Centrale train station. It takes us a while of wandering around the train station to work this out, then we have to work out how to buy our tickets. Any station staff we ask for assistance are consistent in their lack of helpfulness. At least they're consistent. The train takes just under an hour to reach Pompei, stopping at every station and travelling quite slowly. Pompei admission for each of us costs 15 euro, and we ignore the Lonely Planet guide's advice to purchase an audio guide. This would have been a good investment however, because most of the sites do not include any information in English. Overall we are blown away by Pompei - the immense size of the archeological park and the vast amount of things to see, plus the diversity of things to see. We wander through Roman forums, many houses of different sizes, casts made of bodies that were found entombed in the ash, beautiful gardens, mosaics, fountains, bath houses, churches and shrines, intact streets, shops, a palace and the oldest surviving ampitheatre in the world that is dated at 70BC.
Wall decorations bathsPompei

Wall decorations bathsPompei


Statue Daedalus Pompei

Statue Daedalus Pompei

Pompei ampitheatre 70BC

Pompei ampitheatre 70BC

Palace garden Pompei

Palace garden Pompei

Palace garden2 Pompei

Palace garden2 Pompei

Mosaic Pompei

Mosaic Pompei

Entombed child Pompei

Entombed child Pompei

Entombed person Pompei

Entombed person Pompei


We spend around 4 hours wandering the ancient streets in the warm sunshine. There is so much to see and we particularly enjoy the larger 'casas' with their beautiful internal courtyards, often containing beautiful fountains and gardens.
House fountain Pompei

House fountain Pompei

House courtyard Pompei

House courtyard Pompei

Eventually we make our way back toward the entrance, stopping at a cafe for a fresh orange juice and a panini, before we catch the train back to Naples. The return journey takes less than 30 minutes, this time the driver speeds along, stopping at only one station between Pompei and Naples.
That evening we dine at a fully vegan restaurant I have found on Happy Cow. I enjoy vegan ravioli, with macadamia cheese and a zucchini and orange sauce, while David has a mushroom pizza. Because I can, I also have dessert of chocolate cake with a berry coulis, followed by a soy cappuccino. The only downside of the restaurant is that sits on a busy corner just outside the (mostly) car free zone of the historical district. In the warm evening, the doors and windows are open, and the noise from the traffic is horrendous. Our conversation is punctuated by the wailing of police sirens, ambulances, and tooting horns, all at least equalling 100 decibels. How the staff work in this cacophony every night is beyond me! I can't stand it when my classroom gets above 80db! That night is Sunday, and back at our hotel in the old (car free) quarter it is much quieter than the previous night, so we sleep with the window open, until I am woken at 4.06am by someone doing some welding down in the street!
Naples is a most intriguing place - so different to Venice and Florence, both of which we have visited in recent weeks. It is gritty, in-your-face and brazen. It is also a strange dichotomy of graffiti-covered grunge and wondrous beauty. The next morning we explore the Doumo. We enter from a street like all the others; graffiti - covered buildings, cyclone fences surrounding long sections of the street which are inundated with heavy, noisy machinery doing roadworks. Scaffolding surrounds many buildings and it can be hard to appreciate (or even see ) the architecture. As soon as we enter the Duomo, a transformation occurs - to beauty, peace and calm. There are many small chapels branching off from the main nave; each one decorated with paintings from the Baroque, Renaissance and one with mosaics dating from the 4th century. The beauty we see inside the church, and the emphasis on aesthetics is so contrasting to the grit and grime of outside, it is hard to comprehend. It is like entering another world.
Via dei Tribulai Naples

Via dei Tribulai Naples

Piazza Luigi Miraglia Naples

Piazza Luigi Miraglia Naples


Neopolitan scene

Neopolitan scene

We are leaving for the island of Procida that afternoon, but before we return to the BnB to collect our bags, we do the underground tour of Naples. This leaves from right next door to our BnB, and we have seen people queueing for the tour all weekend. The tour is interesting, but tour guides need to realise that speaking to a large group in an underground cavern will create a very live acoustic, so slow speech with frequent pauses is essential. Consequently I only pick up about 50% of what is said. I do learn that these underground chambers were once used as a rubbish dump (not surprised about this), and then during the Second World War, as an air raid shelter. Sometimes people would stay down here for weeks during the war, as so many buildings were destroyed by bombs. The 'highlight' of the tour is through a narrow tunnel, where you have to bend down and climb through darkness (holding your own provided candle) to emerge into a cavern which houses an underground cistern. Many warnings are provided by the guide, emphasising that this is not something to do if you are in any way claustrophobic, so I make an immediate decision to not participate in this part of the tour. Fortunately this is a simple option; I can just remain sitting on a bench while the rest go through the tunnel. Within seconds of the group disappearing through the tunnel a couple of women return to join me - they have taken the emergency exit that is also provided. David does do this section, and takes this photo of the underground water storage:
underground cistern Naples

underground cistern Naples


The tour continues, taking us to some underground houses which were originally theatres in Naples. Naples has grown vertically over the centuries, with houses being built above ancient theatres and arenas. Many of the ancient buildings are only just being discovered and restored.
We have coffee and a light lunch at a vegan cafe, then collect our luggage and make our way down to the port to catch the hydrofoil to the island of Procida. This is quite a walk that takes over 30 minutes, but eventually we arrive and sit in the shade awaiting departure time.

Procida is a breath of fresh air after the noise and grime of Naples. It is a tiny island; clean, simple and quiet. As soon as we step off the boat at the port I feel instantly more relaxed.
Procida Port

Procida Port


The only sound I can hear is the mournful cry of the seagulls over the Marina Corricella where we are staying in our tiny Air Bnb apartment. We have a lovely balcony overlooking the marina and its row of fresh seafood restaurants.
Marina Corricella2

Marina Corricella2


The glass-like surface of the sea and the calm bobbing of the fishing boats right outside our window create a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere that soothes the soul after the frenetic pace of Naples.
Boat harbour Marina Corricella Procida

Boat harbour Marina Corricella Procida


Our host has welcomed us with a couple of small bottles of Prosecco in the fridge. Now this feels like a holiday!
Prosecco!

Prosecco!

Procida Marina Corricella balcony view

Procida Marina Corricella balcony view

Procida Marina Corricella aerial view

Procida Marina Corricella aerial view


Procida is a tiny island. It is so small that you can walk from one end to the other in about 45 minutes. The only problem is there are no footpaths, so you have to walk along the narrow streets, and squish yourself into the edge of the road whenever a vehicle approaches. The positive side of this is that all the roads are bordered on either side by high walls and buildings, so the street is always shaded. It is only about 23 each day, but it does get quite warm in the full glare of the sun. We spend the next few days sitting on our balcony meditating on the view, wandering around some of the historical buildings and churches, walking to the beach, where we sit on black volcanic sand, and checking out the tiny shops where we purchase bottles of local wine, fresh bread and other essential items.
Pozzo Vecchio beach Procida

Pozzo Vecchio beach Procida


A couple of nights we eat out on the marina; we have to walk roughly 20 steps from our front door to reach the restaurant, enjoying freshly caught fried calamari and seafood. One late afternoon we have a Limoncello Spritz on the marina. Its novel, but a bit oversweet and we both decide we prefer Aperol Spritz.
Limoncello spritz!

Limoncello spritz!

Marina Corricella1

Marina Corricella1


Overall Procida is a lovely little island, perfect for a break and only about a 30 minute ferry ride from Naples. Coming here in October has been perfect - its sunny and warm but not too hot, and there are only a small number of tourists. Like everywhere we have visited, I would not like to come here in August when it would be very hot and crowded.

The ferry to Ischia takes less than 30 minutes - we can see Ischia from some parts of the island of Procida - it is right 'next door'. Our Air Bnb hosts meet us as the port and we cram our suitcases into their tiny car for the extremely short trip to their house - which is basically a 5 minute walk from the port, up a pedestrian only path. Our apartment overlooks the port, and the regular arrival and departure of ferries each day provides the soundscape to our stay there. In particular the dropping and pulling up of the anchor as each boat arrives and departs, which is attached to the end of a chain that clatters through the hole on the boat so loudly that it reverberates across the harbour and makes our windows rattle. ,When you are standing in the hold of the ferry waiting to disembark it is deafening.
Ischia Port

Ischia Port


Our accommodation here is in a beautiful garden setting, our apartment adjoining our hosts'.
We set off almost immediately for the Castello Aragonese, a bastide on a tiny islet, connected to the rest of the island by a narrow bridge, which was erected in 1441. It is very similar to Mont St Michel in northern France.
Castello Aragonese

Castello Aragonese


The castle originates back in the 5th century BC, when Hiero of Syracuse built a village on the tiny islet. Around the 5th century AD the locals retreated to live inside the fortress they built to protect themselves against invasions. It continued in this vein until the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was used as a political prison. Nowadays the various rooms and churches have become art galleries, cafes and performance spaces. You purchase an entry ticket for 12 euros, and can take a lift, which brings you out near the top of the hill. From there you can wander around the beautiful paved paths, through the various galleries and churches, and admire the views in the warm sunshine. Its is very well maintained, with beautiful gardens and architecture from all the different periods of its history.

View from Castella Aragonese2

View from Castella Aragonese2

Inner courtyard Castello Aragonese

Inner courtyard Castello Aragonese

Cafe Castella Aragonese

Cafe Castella Aragonese

View from Castella Aragonese3

View from Castella Aragonese3


We spend a very enjoyable afternoon wandering, then return to the main island, where the waves send up large sprays over the cobblestone streets.
Seaspray Ischia

Seaspray Ischia


Ischia shop

Ischia shop


Ischia is very different to Procida. The island is larger and it has a huge extinct volcano in the middle of it; Monte Epomeo, which is 798m high. There is an excellent bus network, with buses circumnavigating the island either clockwise, or anticlockwise. One trip costs 1.5 euros. So for this measly amount of money you could ride around the whole island (which would take roughly one hour) and enjoy all the scenery. The next day we catch a bus to the famous garden of La Mortella.
La Mortella1

La Mortella1


Established by the British composer William Walton and his wife Susanna, the garden is world famous and very beautiful. Both Walton and Susanna lived and are buried here, and they set up a trust to encourage young musicians, whereby music students from selected music schools across Europe come and stay and perform between the months of April and October. Our daughter recommended that we visit Ischia because she participated in this program in 2013, when she was studying at the London Royal College of Music. The gardens are beautiful and extensive, and the plants grouped into different climactic regions.
La Mortella2

La Mortella2

La Mortella3

La Mortella3


At the bottom are the tropical plants, with large lily ponds, and a grotto built specifically to house the amazing Victoria lily, whose leaves are so large and strong they can support the weight of a baby.
Victoria waterlily

Victoria waterlily


There is a concert scheduled for 5pm that afternoon, and I can hear that the pianist has started practising in the small concert hall halfway up the gardens. We sit outside the open door in the warm sun, enjoying her practising one of the Schumann Fantasiestucke. Which one it is, I'm not sure. I am hypnotised by the ebb and flow of the music; its wonderful to sit and relax and listen to live playing. My pleasure is interrupted when couple wander up; him talking non stop, past the sign that says 'if someone is practising, please do not disturb them', straight in the door, right up to the stage where the man interrupts the pianist. I cannot hear what he is saying, but I seethe on her behalf and mine. Besides the rudeness of interrupting a musician who is practising, I have been deprived of my free recital, which I was so enjoying!
We have lunch at the cafe in the middle of the gardens, then walk down the street to the nearby beach, and along it into the town of Forio. It is warm and sunny - about 23 degrees, with no wind, and there are a few people sunbathing and swimming at the beach. After wandering around the town, we catch the bus back to our apartment at Ischia Port.
The next day we venture further on the bus, to the tiny village of San Angelo, which has steep hills winding down to a beach, restaurants and cafes perched on the side of the hills for the best view. The coastline is spectacular, the sea blue and sparklingly clear, and it is a very scenic spot, with another small islet juts off the main island, joined by a narrow isthmus.
San Angelo1

San Angelo1


San Angelo coastline

San Angelo coastline


A delicious lunch of pizza (no cheese) and a wander around, then we catch the bus back along the windy road. The bus driving here is quite entertaining, the buses hurtle along, then suddenly come to a grinding halt when they turn a tight corner and come face to face with another bus or car on the narrow road. Sometimes this occurs in the middle of a village and there is nowhere for either vehicle to move across to make way, so one of them has to back up, until the road widens a little. The drivers all seem to find this quite hilarious, and there are many friendly comments called out through the open windows of the vehicles involved.
Dinner that night at one of the local restaurants overlooking the port, is quite a big affair. We are each given a free glass of prosecco when we arrive, and a glass of limoncello when we finish, so with a bottle of wine sandwiched between these, we almost roll home afterward (well, if you could roll uphill I think we would have). As we step outside the restaurant to leave, the footpath is awash; the seawater has crept up and over the edge, reminding me of St Marks Square in Venice.
Our final day in Ischia we spend climbing Mt Epomeo. This is not as extreme as it sounds - for one, I am definitely not a mountain climber. After reading some reviews on Trip Advisor we work out how this is managed; you take the bus to the village of Fontana, and from there it is just a 3km walk up a pathway to the peak. It is not too difficult a walk - the pathway it quite wide and at times joins the road. At the top there is a lovely outdoor restaurant, and to reach the very top; the crater which was formed when the volcano erupted, you go through a gate at the rear of the restaurant to clamber up some final rocks which overlook a steep drop. There is only a narrow ridge to walk across, which is lined by other walkers enjoying the view, protected only by a thin metal rail. To warn you that this final bit might not be completely safe, is this sign:
Mt Epomeo sign

Mt Epomeo sign


But then, there are the views! From this peak you can pretty much see the entire island.
David-top of Mt Epomeo

David-top of Mt Epomeo


View from Mt Epomeo

View from Mt Epomeo

Mt Epomeo peak

Mt Epomeo peak


And just underneath the peak, the church of St Nicholas has been carved out in the hardened volcanic ash
St Nicholas Church Mt Epomeo

St Nicholas Church Mt Epomeo


On the return bus trip we pass a Roman aquaduct that runs through the town, shops and roads built around it.
Acqueduct Ischia

Acqueduct Ischia

Our next destination on the Amalfi coast is Sorrento. We decide to treat ourselves to a couple of nights in a boutique hotel, the timing of which is perfect, because our Air Bnb in Ischia had some practical drawbacks, such as poor water pressure, tiny bathroom, lack of hot water and very limited cooking facilities. So we eagerly anticipate two nights of hot showers, fancy breakfasts, dining out and hopefully a large bathroom. The ferry from Ischia to Sorrento takes 90 minutes, going via the Isle of Capri. From the port at Sorrento we can take a lift up to the town, and from there it is precisely a two minute walk to our hotel. The hotel is fancy, in an olde worlde antique furniture kind of way, and sure enough, we have a large bathroom with a huge shower and an unlimited supply of hot water.
Palazzo Marziale hotel

Palazzo Marziale hotel


The hotel receptionist recommends we eat down at the Marina Grande and for dinner we do just that, dining at a simple little trattoria right on the water's edge, which is owned by fishermen and serves only fresh fish and seafood. I have a beautiful seafood risotto and we share a half carafe of local white wine. It is a simple and inexpensive but lovely meal, and probably costs half of what it would cost in the town centre.
Marina Grande night

Marina Grande night


The vibe of Sorrento is more touristy than anywhere else we have been on the Amalfi coast. In Procida the main other tourists we noticed were French families. In Ischia, French and German families, and of course everywhere Italian tourists as well. In Sorrento pretty much all the tourists are either British or American. In our fancy hotel we go along to happy hour each evening from 6-7pm, where we sip free glasses of wine or prosecco, eat nibbles and listen to the Americans discuss their day tours around Sorrento and the Amalfi coast. We walk around the town, and then along the top of the cliff for about 3km to a beautiful natural swimming hole, the Bagni Della Regina Giovanna on the coastline amongst the ruins of an ancient Roman castle. The only challenge with this walk is, like most roads in this part of Italy, there are not always footpaths, so for part of the way we are walking along the side of a narrow, windy road. In some sections it is so narrow that when a bus or truck approaches we have to flatten ourselves against the wall bordering the road.
Aerial Marina Grande & Sorrento

Aerial Marina Grande & Sorrento

Coastline near Sorrento

Coastline near Sorrento

Sorrento walk

Sorrento walk

Swimming Bagni della Regina Giovanna

Swimming Bagni della Regina Giovanna

Bagni della Regina Giovanna

Bagni della Regina Giovanna

S & D near Sorrento

S & D near Sorrento


There are many churches in Sorrento, tucked away amongst the souvenir shops that sell limoncello, lemon aprons, lemon slushies and lemon chocolate.
Sorrento church courtyard

Sorrento church courtyard


We also come across a shop selling legal cannabis, with a statue of Bob Marley out the front.
Sorrento w Bob

Sorrento w Bob


Like all the other towns on the Amalfi coast, Sorrento has 'pedestrian only' areas, which you often find yourself walking along with a motor scooter or car heading straight toward you. The Italians seem very addicted to their vehicles and are quite resigned to squeezing them through the most unimaginably small spaces, and waiting patiently behind pedestrians until they can make their way through.
Our final destination on the Amalfi coast is appropriately, the town of Amalfi. To get there we have to take the bus from Sorrento because the ferry to Amalfi finished yesterday. The bus is a typical 49 seater, run by the local company SITA SUD, and costs 3 euros for each of us. There is a long queue of people wanting to catch this bus to Amalfi, making you question the wisdom of the ferry no longer running. The buses run every 30 minutes, and each one is packed to the gills. When all the seats are taken (fortunately we are early enough to get seats), the remaining passengers stand in the aisle, which I am glad not to be doing as we wind our way around the hairpin bends, ascending higher and higher up the mountain as we leave Sorrento. This doesn't deter many of the standing passengers who take photos and videos of the spectacular scenery. Every so often we pass through a small village, high above the sea, around hairpin bends so tight a mirror is provided on the roadside, then come face to face with another bus. Both drivers love the challenge, each backing up to find a slightly wider section of the road, and then the buses inch past one another, with millimetres to spare on either side.
We pass through Positano, where layers of houses, hotels, restaurants and shops cling to the edge of the steep cliffs as they ascend from the sea. Through these wind various narrow roads at different elevations. The whole thing is a masterpiece of engineering.
Our Air Bnb apartment in Amalfi is right next to the cathedral.
Amalfi cathedral outside

Amalfi cathedral outside


The apartment is small, but beautifully decorated and every little detail has been thought of; tea towels, oven mitts, a microwave, wine glasses, coffee maker and coffee, laundry detergent (all things mentioned because they were not provided in Ischia). The apartment is owned by a father and son; the son sends me detailed messages in fluent English with ferry and bus timetables, supermarket locations, etc., while his father greets us at the apartment, showing us the list of information which his son has prepared in English, which he relates in Italian. Amalfi is famous for hand made paper, and on the writing desk in the bedroom is a small collection of beautiful cream linen paper and envelopes; a welcome gift.
We visit the cathedral next door. By now I am starting to feel 'church fatigue'; I have visited so many churches on this trip and previous European trips. But this one is very unique and beautiful. The tour begins in the garden cloister, then continues into the basilica, which has a museum of artefacts from the church's history, then the crypt, whose detailed ceiling is stunningly beautiful and contrasting to the simple basilica.
Amalfi cathedral garden cloister

Amalfi cathedral garden cloister

Amalfi cathedral crypt

Amalfi cathedral crypt


Finally we enter the cathedral itself, which is just magnificent.
Amalfi cathedral inside

Amalfi cathedral inside


We wander the town, enjoying an Italian classic Aperol Spritz on the promenade overlooking the beach and the sunset. Again I am impressed by the tray that comes out with three bowls of complimentary nibbles to accompany our drinks. I think Australian bars need to adopt this practice!
Today is October 31st - Halloween. We also spent Halloween in Europe in 1999, staying in a small village in Provence with our two daughters, aged 10 and 12. On that occasion a note was pinned up in the town square in French, which invited everyone to join the Halloween party around 7.30pm. We all promptly forgot about it, and that evening after dinner, some children knocked on our door, calling out whatever 'trick or treat' is in French. As we had no lollies in the house, we pretended we weren't home! Twenty years later, a similar celebration is held. As we are staying right next to the cathedral, facing the town piazza, from around 7pm we can hear loud music and screaming children. We wander down, as it sounds like there is a huge party going on. Instead we find about a dozen small children wandering round, dressed variously as witches or ghosts. One small boy has a white painted face and carries a small guitar, which he keeps thrashing around in the air. In the distance we can see flashes of lightning - the calm, sunny weather we have enjoyed since arriving in Italy a few weeks ago is finally turning. As the lightning gets closer and the thunder stars to rumble, the party suddenly finishes, and everyone heads home, the restaurant and cafe owners packing up their outdoor furniture.
We spend the next day doing a walk that ascends into the hills behind Amalfi, and leads to a nature reserve. It is called the Valle delle Ferriere. We walk along the main street of the town away from the sea, toward the hills and cliffs that tower over the town. As we climb thousands of stairs we pass beautiful market gardens, with lemon trees espaliered across wire frames, and olive groves, until we descend to walk through the valley beside the river and enjoy the native woodland.
Valle delle Ferriere walk1

Valle delle Ferriere walk1


After about an hour we come to the nature reserve where for 5 euro each, we are given a 30 minute guided tour of this unique and beautiful valley. Huge cliffs soar above us, covered in ancient ferns and moss, water streaming constantly from the overhead vegetation. Amazingly, because this valley is so well secreted among the mountains, the temperature always remains below 20 degrees, and in the winter the streaming water freezes and looks like stalactites.
S & D nature reserve Valle delle Ferriere

S & D nature reserve Valle delle Ferriere


Nature reserve Valle delle Ferriere2

Nature reserve Valle delle Ferriere2


As we walk back along the track toward Amalfi we hear bells ringing. The sources suddenly reveal themselves as a herd of goats dart across the track and scamper up the hill ahead of us.
Valle delle Ferriere walk2

Valle delle Ferriere walk2


Our next day is spent visiting Positano. We catch the ferry there from Amalfi, and whilst waiting on the pier we spot another classic 'dogs in Europe' image! I suppose if you are taking your dogs on the ferry, putting them in a pram is a very practical solution.
Dogs in pram!

Dogs in pram!

It is raining as we wait for the ferry, but soon fines up and the temperature immediately returns to it usual balmy 21 degrees. I spend the day in Positano coughing constantly with asthma. I usually only suffer from asthma very occasionally, and it generally stops as soon as I use my puffer, but today, nothing will make it go away. My hip tendonopathy problem has worsened while we have been away, so I have begun taking anti inflammatories in the last couple of days. I am not sure if there is a connection between these things. In my constricted breathing state I am even more sensitive than usual to all the smokers. I feel as though about 95% of the population in Europe is a smoker, and they are so hard to avoid. There always seems to be someone in front or behind blowing smoke all over you; sometimes cigar smoke, which is even more disgusting. My lungs being what they are today, I try to dodge the clouds of smoke as best I can. This is nowhere near as widespread in Australia as most of the population there have figured out how hazardous and revolting smoking is. I can't believe I was stupid enough to do it myself in my youth.
Positano ascends from the sea; buildings seemingly stacked on top of one another. It is a maze of winding alleys filled with beautiful and fascinating art galleries, souvenir shops, clothes shops and restaurants. We buy a panini and sit on a park bench overlooking the beach, enjoying the sunshine before returning to Amalfi on the ferry.
Positano1

Positano1

Positano coastline

Positano coastline

Positano2

Positano2


Our final day in Italy the weather has now made up its mind. Morning arrives with the daily loud peal of church bells right above our window, a rumble of thunder and a deluge of rain. We walk down to the water's edge, where the usually blue, calm sea, is now grey and agitated, heaving toward the shore and sending up tall spumes of spray that crash against the tall cliffs further along the beach.
Stormy sea Amalfi

Stormy sea Amalfi


There are no ferries in sight - this was supposed to be the final day the ferries run, but I guess that day has been brought forward, thanks to this change in the weather. Finally the rain dwindles, so we catch a bus to Ravello, the next town along the coast, which is perched high on the top of a hill. It is quite cool and windy up there, and many shops are closed, with only a handful of tourists wandering around the town. We peruse the shops and the cathedral, then catch the bus back to Amalfi to prepare for our flight out of Italy the following day.
Ravello

Ravello


We have enjoyed beautiful weather in this part of Italy, with not a breath of wind, until today. I really think October is a perfect time to come; the weather is sunny and warm, but not too hot, and I suspect it is a lot more crowded in the summer months of July and August. All our Italian Air Bnb hosts and hotel staff have been incredibly friendly and helpful and people are generally very relaxed and cheerful. We do find it perplexing however, to be walking through a part of the town designated 'pedestrian only' to find a motor scooter or car coming towards us. Italians seem very attached to their motor scooters. This is one thing I won't miss. Nor, of course, the prevalent smoking.

Posted by suel1960 08:24 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Tuscany!

Dogs in Europe

sunny 20 °C

A side comment/ blog on dogs in Europe. Back home, it is possible that we spoil and baby our dog too much - he sleeps inside, and if we go out at night for a short period in winter, we leave him inside so he doesn't get too cold (he is 13 I might add). But I have never carried him in my handbag, or in a pram, or laid him on the tray table in front of my seat on a train. These last three things we have seen plenty of in Europe, as well as dogs accompanying people to restaurants and staying in hotels. People have a very different attitude toward dogs in Europe. In Australia they are banned from all types of shops, although I can take my dog into one local newsagent; the owner doesn't mind. But this is an exception. In Europe dogs can stay in many hotels, apartments, visit restaurants and travel on public transport. In Vienna many choir members were fascinated by a woman staying at our hotel, who carried a large shiny gold handbag over her shoulder, with a small dog's head poking out the top. When catching the train from Vienna to Linz, a woman heaved a pram up into the train carriage. When I looked more closely, expecting to see a baby, there was a dog inside looking back at me. Whilst walking in Bavaria we included a 'rest day', whereby we caught one of the local buses. After settling myself into my seat I l glanced across the aisle to see a Jack Russell curled up on its owner's lap, enjoying the Bavarian view. Here is the only one we have managed to photograph; a dog fast asleep on the tray table on the fast train from Bologna to Florence.
Dog on train

Dog on train


In Munich we had dinner with our exchange student from 2005 and her husband, and I was trying to explain our amusement at the various 'dog situations' we have seen. Ronald looked a bit bemused that we found the sight of a dog being carried in a handbag so amusing, and totally bewildered when I explained that you would not see this in Australia; dogs are not allowed in restaurants, shops or hotels, or on public transport unless they are very small and transported in a completely covered small carry case. Ronald thought that quite inexplicable. Looking at it from a European perspective, I suppose it is. Never-the-less, these sightings of dogs have been quite novel and amusing for us, and when it can be done discreetly, we take a photo. Australians will probably find this amusing. Europeans will wonder what all the fuss is about.

On Friday October 11th we arrived in Florence. It was pretty quick and easy to find our hotel, as Florence seems to be quite a small city - the 'centro' is a short walk from the station, and all the many historical sites are very close together. The first night we ate salad at a simple vegetarian restaurant, as I was still recovering from the rich German pork belly from the previous evening, and we wandered around, enjoying the soft, gentle evening air and admiring the statues and museums that seem to inhabit so many piazzas and courtyards. The next morning after breakfast we walked down to the Duomo and joined the long queue that by 9.15 was already snaking its way around the large cathedral, which did not open until 10am. It was incredible how busy Florence was in October, particularly around the duomo; this piazza was always jam packed with tourists. I dread to think what it must be like in August! Eventually we entered the duomo about 10.30am, after admiring the intricate and beautiful external walls as we progressed along the queue. In Germany we had seen the beautiful outside walls of palaces where the detailed tiles were a painted on effect. Here the individual tiles were real - it is incredible to wonder how long it must have taken to assemble this complex pattern of tiles to construct this mammoth edifice.
In front of Duomo Florence

In front of Duomo Florence


Ceiling of Duomo Florence

Ceiling of Duomo Florence


Through our hotel we had booked a visit to the Uffizi Gallery for 4.15pm that afternoon. In 1996 we travelled to Europe with our two daughters, aged 6 and 8. We had stayed in a camping ground outside Florence, at Figline Valdarno, from where we caught the train into Florence for the day. Unfortunately this day visit fell on a Monday when, unbeknown to us, most galleries and museums are closed. All I remember about this day was walking around the outskirts of the Duomo, visiting the market, and on returning to the station, being pickpocketed by a group of children who held newspapers in front of us, as they raided our bumbags. As we each had hold of one of our children, we only had one free hand to try and unclasp the pickpockets' hands from our arms. Luckily our only loss was my sunglasses, lifted out of my bumbag. So, twenty three years later, I was looking forward to finally visiting the Uffizi Gallery. We strolled down to that area of Florence, enjoying the statues and galleries that seem to pop up everywhere, and taking in the beautiful Ponte Vecchio.
Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

Bridges Florence

Bridges Florence


Piazza della Signoria Florence

Piazza della Signoria Florence


Around 4pm we come across a long queue of tourists. At one end of it is a sign saying 'reserved tickets'. I ask a woman in the queue if she has a booked ticket for the Uffizi. She confirms that she does and asks me what time we are booked in for. When I tell her we are booked in for 4.15pm, she jerks her head toward the back of the queue and says 'Well you'd better join the line quick smart!'. We finally reach the office where they issue reserved tickets about 30 minutes later, and are then told to join another queue across the thoroughfare; this one is even longer. Finally we enter the gallery around 5pm, and realise one of the reasons the entry is slow is because of the security screenings of all bags as people enter. We are carried in on the vast human tide, and climb three flights of stairs to where the exhibition begins. There are long hallways of ancient Greek and Roman statues, and room after room of first medieval, and then Renaissance paintings. Each room and corridor itself is a work of art, with frescoes painted on the ceiling and paintings up high on each wall, above the line of the picture rail. One could spend days or weeks in here.
Main hall Uffizi Gallery

Main hall Uffizi Gallery


grand room - Uffizi Gallery

grand room - Uffizi Gallery

That evening we dine at a pizzeria in the Piazza Duomo which has vegan pizzas on the menu. I eat a delicious wood fired pizza with vegan buffalo cheese, tomato and basil. It is a mild evening and we sit at an outside table, enjoying the view of the Duomo and the general atmosphere. At the table beside us, two young women take turns fluffing their hair, pouting and taking photos of one another, then spend the next ten minutes on their phones, busily adding their doctored images to Instagram. The young wait staff fuss constantly over them; while we keep asking and waiting to be served another drink, the two beside us are constantly asked if they need anything. David tells me we have reached that age where we have become invisible. Another couple in our age group at a nearby table eventually give up and leave. Finally we ask for the bill; a request which is seemingly ignored, like all our others. We wait about ten minutes then stand and pick up our bags. The waitress walks past again, so I tell her we are about to leave and ask if she would prefer that we pay the bill first? Presto! We finally have service!!
Our final day in Florence we spend wandering, and discover the beautiful Riccardi Medici palace just a few doors from our hotel.
Statue Riccardi Medici palace

Statue Riccardi Medici palace

Garden Riccardi Medici palace

Garden Riccardi Medici palace


We continue walking to the Boboli Gardens on the other side of the river. While we are queued up to buy our tickets, the young boy in front of us amuses both us and his parents by taking photos of exciting images such as the wall, a cyclone fence, and close ups of the ground. His mother indicates some nice views he could photograph with his camera, but he continues to race around, finding close ups of more 'relatable' objects more satisfactory. The gardens are beautiful and we enjoy strolling around on this mild and sunny day, enjoying the views of Florence from this elevated position above the river.
Florence view

Florence view

Boboli gardens Florence

Boboli gardens Florence

Archway Boboli gardens Florence

Archway Boboli gardens Florence


After this we head to a cafe I have found on 'Happy Cow' where we both have what is probably the first decent coffee we've drunk in Europe so far!
Coffee in Florence

Coffee in Florence

In the afternoon we head to the Galleria dell' Accademia where we see an amazing exhibition of historic musical instruments, including 18th century Stradivari violin and cello, as well as harpsichords and clavichords made by the famous keyboard maker Christofori, who developed the first piano. We also see a model of the piano mechanism that was his big breakthrough, as well as the earliest version of the upright piano.
18th century Stradivari violin  Galleria dell'Accademia

18th century Stradivari violin Galleria dell'Accademia

Description 18th century Stradivari violin

Description 18th century Stradivari violin

18th century Stradivari cello  Galleria dell'Accademia

18th century Stradivari cello Galleria dell'Accademia

Description 18th century Stradivari cello

Description 18th century Stradivari cello

Christofori harpsichord

Christofori harpsichord

First upright piano Galleria dell'Accademia

First upright piano Galleria dell'Accademia

Description First upright piano Galleria dell'Accademia

Description First upright piano Galleria dell'Accademia


It is particularly exciting for me as a pianist and a music teacher to see these early versions of the piano, which were invented in Florence in the early 17th century.
In the adjacent room is the famous Michaelangelo's David. It is an enormous statue. What strikes me is the sheer huge size of the hands and the feet, although it is said that one of the reasons for its fame is the perfect proportions. It is certainly awe-inspiring in its grace, sheer presence and perfection of form.
Michaelangelo's David

Michaelangelo's David


We leave the art and history of Florence the next morning and catch the train to Siena, where we pick up a hire car from Hertz, and are subjected to the usual ruses that attempt to force you to spend more money without even realising you have unconsciously selected this option. By the time we have removed the extra insurance and the 'no excess' premium, our hire cost has decreased by around 200 euro. We set off on the 50km drive to our Tuscan villa near San Gimignano, using google maps to navigate. Again I thank my decision to purchase European SIM cards for this trip. We arrive at our accommodation which is a traditional stone villa, divided into three apartments. The owners live in one, we stay in a small two bedroom apartment, and there is a larger two bedroom apartment, unused during our stay. The property is called 'La Fabbrichina' and it is located about 10km from San Gimignano, and about 20km from Volterra. It is a large property, built on the side of a hill, with beautiful views to the valley, and incorporating an orchard, olive grove, many vegetable patches, a swimming pool and a number of outside terraces, barbecues and pizza ovens for the guests to dine outside.
View from Tuscan villa

View from Tuscan villa

Tuscan Villa

Tuscan Villa


It also has a very cute dog, Mario, a couple of cats and some chickens.
Mario

Mario


There is a bottle of wine on the kitchen table and in the fridge, a container of eggs, each egg lovingly inscribed with the name of the chook who laid it.
Fresh eggs

Fresh eggs


It is David's birthday and our celebration plan centres on cooking our first meal in a month. We are heartily sick of restaurant meals, so in a strange flip, we are having a birthday dinner that doesn't involve going out.
A couple who were on the choir tour we did a couple of weeks ago, happen to be staying in Siena at the moment, so we have arranged to spend the day with them tomorrow. We set off somewhat apprehensively; the previous day's car journey took a lot of concentration for David, driving on the opposite side of the road, and for me, successfully navigating using google maps and communicating the correct roundabout exit can be fraught with tension. Unfortunately I unwittingly select 'Province of Siena' instead of 'city of Siena', in my original search, so google maps takes us to the town of Casetta; about 15 minutes outside of Siena. Embarrassingly I have to text our friends, who are waiting for us outside the Siena Duomo, to tell them to please go in without us, and hopefully we will be there soon! With Tuscan hilltop towns, the trick is to find a carpark down the hill that is not full, then catch a bus, or walk to the historical centre 'centro'. The further down the hill the carpark is, the less it costs, and the ones right down the bottom are free. We park in the first carpark we see, which is of course free, but then have a 40 minute uphill walk to reach the Duomo Piazza. Fortunately our friends are just coming out of the duomo as we arrive, so together we head off to a cafe I have found on "Happy Cow', for lunch and a soy cappuchino.
Heading to restaurant Siena

Heading to restaurant Siena

Lunch in Siena

Lunch in Siena


After a leisurely lunch, we stroll around Siena, stopping in the main piazza, where Mindy and I take a photo and send it to the rest of the choir members who are rehearsing in Melbourne at that same time, to say 'Mindy and Sue won't be at choir tonight as we are performing in the Siena Duomo'.
Mindy & Sue can't attend choir rehearsal

Mindy & Sue can't attend choir rehearsal

Mindy, Sue and Mark in Siena

Mindy, Sue and Mark in Siena

The next morning we drive from our villa toward Volterra, and turn off to find a walking track that leads to some castle ruins. Unfortunately our phone signal disappears, so we never find the castle ruins, but have an enjoyable walk through tiny villages and past farm stays (called 'agriturismo').
After lunch we head into San Gimignano and wander around the ancient streets admiring the sights of the town and the views from the town.
View from San Gimignano

View from San Gimignano

Main piazza San Gimignano

Main piazza San Gimignano


Eventually we stop at a bar and sit outside in the main piazza to have an aperol spritz (the most popular drink in Italy), which is served with a generous supply of nuts and nibbles.
We do a bit of research and discover the hilltop town of Certaldo which is only 12km away, so the following morning we set off there and enjoy a very peaceful morning of exploring this beautiful hilltop town, pretty much on our own.
On the way we stop at a lookout to take a photo of San Gimignano in the soft morning light, the mist hanging over the valley.
Morning view San Gimignano

Morning view San Gimignano

Certaldo is not as well known, so it does not have millions of souvenir shops, or millions of tourists, like San Gimignano, but it does have an ancient palace that is now a historical museum, with a plethora of interesting information and amazing sights.Piazza well Certaldo

Piazza well Certaldo

Streetscape Certaldo

Streetscape Certaldo


Our overseas SIM cards are with the UK company Three and unbeknown to us, Three had a massive crash that same day. We were trying to use google maps to navigate our route from Certaldo to a restaurant I had found on Happy Cow: Ristorante Agrivilla I Pini, for lunch. My phone was alternating between saying 'no service' and briefly indicating 3G, with nothing loading. We knew the restaurant was either in or very close to San Gimignano, so we drove there, hoping to see a sign to the restaurant, to no avail. Eventually we had to return to our villa, use the wi fi to download the route and make our way there. We turned right onto a narrow gravel road just opposite the town centre, and followed this for a couple of km before we came to a huge iron gate with a sign 'I Pini'. I rang the contact number and an English voice answered. When he realised we were just outside the gate hoping to come in for lunch, he opened the gate straight away. By the time we parked, walked up to the beautiful 15th century restored stone building, a table had been set up for us on the terrace, overlooking San Gimignano and the vineyard. We had a beautiful gourmet vegan two course lunch, with a glass of their own organic white wine, then wandered up the hill, past the swimming pool, through the olive grove to admire the amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
Veganwineryview

Veganwineryview

Veganwinery_olivegrove

Veganwinery_olivegrove


Tuscan panorama2

Tuscan panorama2

Tuscan panorama

Tuscan panorama


Our last day in Tuscany, we visit another less well known town: Colle val d'Elsa, another beautiful hilltop town of ancient churches and palaces, and cobblestone streets and piazzas. This one specialises in hand made crystal and we visit a couple of shops, admiring both traditional and quite innovative glassware and ornaments. In the morning it is quite deserted, and we note that many shops are closed when we arrive, and just opening as we leave around lunchtime.
Val d'Elsa laneway

Val d'Elsa laneway


The Air Bnb villa we have stayed in has an owl theme - its name is 'Casa Gufo" (Owl House) and there are owls everywhere; on cushions, on the walls, owl statues, an owl clock, owl tablecloths and napkins. In deference to this, some previous guests have made drawings of owls which have been framed and hung on the wall. Instead, David makes a drawing of their dog, Mario, whose company we have greatly enjoyed, particularly as we are missing our own little dog back home.
Drawing of Mario

Drawing of Mario


Fabrizio is tickled pink, and writes us a lovely thankyou in Italian (thank google translate!) on the Air Bnb feedback. Farewell Tuscany! We have enjoyed your soft, gentle light, quaint hilltop towns, scenic landscapes and windy roads to get places (ok I am lying about the last bit).

Posted by suel1960 06:31 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

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