On our long time ago journey Sue and travelled from Rome to Sorrento. Sorrento is a well known holiday resort in southwestern Italy, a good base for excursions. And Sorrento was scintillating. It's perched atop cliffs that separate the town from its busy marinas. The Old Town is a warren of narrow alleys. Pride of place goes to the Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th-century church with a pretty cloister. The whole of Italy paraded along the promenade at night. Ostensibly, for the sweeping sea views, but really it's all about people watching- and being seen. Despite all the warnings we didn’t get our bottoms pinched.
We took the hovercraft to Naples. The third largest city in Italy, with a proud history (and synonymous with the Camorra (Mafia ) in my head. No-one was running organised trips there at that time - it was considered to be too risky. You literally could 'see Naples and die'. We took nothing with us, except a cheap camera. There wasn’t much to engage us - maybe we went to the wrong part - we were a little nervous. Some urchins offered to take our pictures and ran off chuckling when we refused to hand over the camera.
Pompeii and Vesuvius
Pompeii was more rewarding. The town is well known for having been buried under falling ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79. It happened so quickly that bodies and houses were really well preserved creating a vast museum of life in Ancient Roman times. Robert Harris describes the events of the time beautifully in his book Pompeii. We soaked up the history and went on to pick up pieces of pumice on Vesuvius itself. Buses take you to the lower slopes and great views out to sea and over Pompeii and the other buried town, Herculaneum. But, if you don't mind a scramble, you can get get right up to the crater and peer over.
The Amalfi Coast
We took a boat trip to craggy, crowded and bougainvillea filled Capri. Then, a coach trip along the Amalfi Coast. It was suitably gorgeous and the churches stunning. But the bus crawled along the narrow coast road - the Italians weren’t too fussy about where they parked their cars. We wove slowly round these and at one point the bus driver commandeered a gang of locals and they lifted an offending vehicle right out of the way.
Chris and I drove to Tuscany, gorgeous central Italy: Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Florence. Florence, the capital is magical. Famous for its Renaissance art and architecture, including Michelangelo’s "David" statue, Botticelli’ and da Vinci's works in the Uffizi Gallery (long queues to get in) and the Duomo basilica. The cathedral has a terracotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and a bell tower by Giotto. The statue filled Boboli Gardens. They're all beautifully described in Forster's Room With a View. Best of all, the iconic views across the River Arno to the red roofs of the city.
Siena is sometimes described as the loveliest medieval town in the country - which is something in Italy. And, of course, it's UNESCO designated. Siena was fascinating and straw strewn - the locals all bedecked in medieval costumes. Preparations for the second Palio horse race of the year were underway. It's held in the fan-shaped central square, Piazza del Campo, the site of the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic town hall, and Torre del Mangia, a slender 14th-century tower. You climb up to its distinctive white crown for sweeping views over the town and countryside. The city’s 17 historic “contrade” (districts) extend outward from the piazza. Ten of these are represented in the races. Riders are adorned in the appropriate insignia and ride bareback. The race lasts for 3 circuits of the piazza, and is a scrimmage. Jockeys do well if they stay mounted until the end.
The autostradas were an experience, the city traffic was terrible and it was almost impossible to park. South, cinnamon soil, olive clad slopes, little hills with charming inns or monasteries on top. Chianti’s vineyards.
We parked the caravan with views across the picture book scenery to the castle on Fiesole; I was reading John Mortimer’s Summer’s Lease and we sought out and sampled all the wines he mentioned in his writing. Vernaccia de San Gimignano was superb.
Pisa is to the east of Florence, at the mouth of the Arno and has a coastal marina. It also has 20 historic churches and several palaces, but the only one anyone has ever heard of is the one with the leaning tower. It's the cathedral. The Leaning Tower is its freestanding campanile, or bell tower. The 56 metre tower's nearly four-degree lean is the result of an unstable foundation (the ground is too soft) and has been apparent since it was first constructed in the 12th century. The tilt worsened, until it had reached reached 5.5 degrees in 1990, so it was stabilized and it's now back to 3.97 degrees. There's also an amazing red domed baptistry.
Lucca is yet another gorgeous Tuscan city with a medieval centre, encircled by well-preserved Renaissance walls. This time, the piazza is oval shaped. It’s very quiet, as all the Italians have fled to the coast to escape the blistering heat of August. We dart across the cobblestone streets, leaping from shadow to shadow, to avoid being seared.
Read more about Italy here.