The train to Milan from Verona is much busier than the one from Venice. They’ve looped signs round some of the seats telling people to leave them empty, though I don’t see the point when someone can sit adjacent to you on the aisle. I’ve taken the seat by the window and the sign is now underneath me.
This is the Lombardy Plain and I can see mountains rising to the north now, in the distance. There are more of the steeple like cypress trees, synonymous with Italy and little churches with tapering red spires.
My modern hotel, the Anderson Echo, is across the road from the station, so I was hoping for a more peaceful night than Verona, especially as I’m on the seventh (top floor). But I can still hear the trains thundering underneath - the whole building reverberates. The literature told me it was within walking distance of the sights. That’s open to liberal interpretation. The closest of them - the cathedral - is a good half hour away. Using that logic, I suppose the whole of mainland Europe is within walking distance. I was booked in at the sister hotel, just across the road, but they’ve decided to keep that one closed - not enough clientele. I wonder if the metro line goes under that one too?
If I type Milan into Google I get pages of links about football. It’s all A.C. Milan too. Inter Milan isn’t getting a mention. When I input Milan City I’m told Milan is ‘a global capital of fashion and design and home to the national stock exchange’. Wikipedia says it’s the capital of Lombardy and the second most populous city in the country, after Rome, the dominant commercial centre of northern Italy.
Milan has dominated for some time. It's been a capital city on several occasions. It dates back to the Celts in about 400 BC. The Romans named it Mediolanum and after an edict by Diocletian became the seat of the western half of the Roman Empire. In 774 AD Milan surrendered to Charlemagne and the Franks. In 1395 Emperor Wenceslas made Milan a duchy, (The Duke of Milan features often in Shakespeare). The mid -15th century brought the Ambrosian Republic, taking its name from the patron saint of the city. The republic was short lived, as Milan was conquered by Francesco Sforza in 1450. Under the Sforzas, Milan became one of the leading cities of the Italian Renaissance.
Later Milan became Spanish and then Austrian. Under Napoleon it was made the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Then it became Austrian again. With the unification of the country. In 1919 Benito Mussolini rallied the Blackshirts for the first time in Milan. He was also executed there. Phew!
It’s exceptionally quiet here, but then of course it actually is Sunday. About half the shops in the Via Buenos Aires – the local equivalent of Oxford Street - are open. Perhaps unsurprisingly Milan reminds me of London, though on a far smaller scale. The buildings are grand, rather than ornate. There’s a mixture of modern and older architecture and the colonnades creating shady walkways alongside some of the shops are welcome. It’s stylish and practical, rather than beautiful, like Bologna.
The streets are dotted with little booths, sweep in arcs around piazzas and are good for people watching. And I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the folk of Verona are more elegant than those of Milan, whatever Milan’s claim to fame. Although some of the ladies are wearing masks that are the same fabric as their dresses. (Nearly everyone here is wearing a mask, even out on the street - Lombardy had a high number of Covid cases.). You can even buy a trikini – a bikini with a matching mask.
Milan Cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete: construction began in 1386, but it wasn't finished until 1965. This is the largest church in Italy (St. Peter's Basilica is in Vatican City state), possibly the second largest in Europe and the third largest in the world (its size and position remain a matter of debate)The cathedral is a gothic masterpiece of course, but it’s not jaw dropping like Saint Mark’s.
And the other much vaunted site, the renowned opera theatre The Teatro Scala, is frankly disappointing. For some reason I had envisaged sweeping staircases, maybe they’re inside. La Scala's season opens on 7 December, Saint Ambrose's Day, the feast day of Milan's patron saint.
The Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, which links the La Scala Piazza and its statue of Leonardo, with the duomo is far more interesting. It’s the oldest shopping mall in the world – elegantly housing four floors of shops containing nothing I can afford to buy. The arcaded ceilings are glass and the floors laid to decorative mosaic. One of these depicts a bull. It’s supposed to be lucky to stamp on his testicles – needless to say he now doesn’t have any left.
Plenty more churches (of course), old and newer, piazzas and a variety of sculptures, again ancient and modern..
The Castello Sforzesco is also definitely worth a visit, with its red walls (200 metres in length), three courtyards, emerald grassed moat and four huge round towers. This is where the Sforzas, the Dukes of Milan lived. It now houses numerous museums and much of Leonardo’s work – this is where the artist ‘spent his golden years'. Beyond, the Parco Sempione is more temptingly tranquil, with its shady trees and lakes. Most of Milan has ventured here, this summer afternoon. There’s a Peace Arch crowning the scene, atop the hill.
Just time to take in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie before my energy gives out and I have to stop for ice cream. The building is supposedly famous for housing Da Vinci’s Last Supper, fittingly, in the refectory, though I don’t see it mentioned outside. And it is closed - though the tower, which is curiously round and tiered, is worth the additional distance.
I’m glad I stopped to take a look, but Milan is not my favourite Italian city. Tomorrow, across (and through) the Alps to Zurich and onto Liechtenstein.
See the following:
What was I expecting from Sicily? Eruptions (Etna has been active for 3500 years and is the largest volcano in Europe), the Mafia (though not necessarily toting machine guns in violin cases) and huge lemons. But other sources tell me that Sicily has much more to live up to. Gregor Clark, writes effusively and typically: ‘I still find Sicily one of the world's most captivating places’. Or Lonely Planet: ‘Eternal crossroads of the Mediterranean, the gorgeous island of Sicily continues to seduce travellers with its dazzling diversity of landscapes and cultural treasures…… The land of the Cyclops has been praised by poets from Homer to Virgil and prized by the many ancient cultures…’
I've travelled from Albania, across Italy via Rimini and Bologna. to Sicily. I have learned that Sicily is the largest Mediterranean island, much bigger than I expected. So is Palermo the capital, which has a population of one million. After touring Palermo, I have also discovered that Sicily has an extraordinarily complicated history, with countless invasions: the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Goths, the Arabs, the Normans, the Byzantines. It all leads to an incredible architectural feast, and some exotic food.
Palermo has a faded beauty. The sunshine adds charm to the peeling facades, wrought iron balconies and chipped stone. Here too, you stumble on a surprise round every corner, a fountain, a statue, some Arab style domes atop a hall or church. A cupola peeks over the roofs on every street, but these are colourful mosaic. This is beyond diversity – a splendid mish mash: a classical facade with ornate statues sits in front of a plain brick faced wall, or else nothing. A banner strewn museum. A palazzo, adjacent to a crumbling heap. My bed and breakfast (though they won’t give me breakfast as it wasn’t included in my deal apparently) is on the top floor of a riyadh style apartment building, built round a courtyard. It’s very atmospheric, and in keeping, with flaking frescoes up the many stairs. A lift would be nice.
The Historical Centre of Palermo (Centro Storico) is defintely storico. There's a towering 12th-century cathedral and the Church of San Cataldo, topped with three red domes, an ancient Royal Palace and a plethora of museums. Not to mention the street markets.
The crenellated royal palace (Norman Palace) is the epitome of Moorishness from the front, swathed in palm trees. At the back there are Norman arches, This building incorporates an early al-Qasr (in Arabic, castle or palace), believed to date to the 9th century and the Emir of Palermo, so it's oldest royal residence in Europe;. It was the seat of the Kings of Sicily and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily. Since 1946 it's been used by the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
Inside, the Cappella Palatina is a feast of Byzantine mosaic - and a throng of people. Upstairs you can tour the royal apartments. The most exciting feature is a room with paintings of all the past presidents. And, as parliament does not sit on a Monday, I also get to visit the debating chamber.
I’m proud that I’ve been able to follow my map (lots of little windy streets) and find the famous street markets in Palermo. As advertised, they're very colourful. The Arab influence is very evident, in the souk like narrow streets and vibrant displays. There’s a huge variety of polished fruit vegetables and other food, including tubs of plump olives and crawling striped snails.
Each area of Palermo has its own special shopping district. The Mercato della Vucciria is both shabby and fascinating. The Mercato del Ballarò, close to the Royal Palace, is the busiest market and where I spend most of my time. The stalls snake across several piazzas and then peter out into flea markets and more streets, which are strewn with clothes and debris. I’m not sure if these are for sale or not and it’s beyond seedy. I’m still feeling vulnerable after having my purse stolen, on the last section of my journey in Rimini, so I motor on through.
The Mercato di Capo is possibly the most atmospheric. This is where bloody sides of meat swing and huge fish glisten. There's even an antiques market I'm told, if you hunt hard enough.
It’s hot work trekking and admiring (another eight miles in Palermo today) and trying to resist all the street food and gelateria. I’ve already succumbed to the largest arancini (stuffed fried rice ball) you ever saw. I’ve been told that Mondello Beach, seven miles out of town, is gorgeous, so I decide to make my way there. That’s easier said than done. What would I do without Google, complete with excruciating pronunciation, to bail me out?
Three buses later (one in the wrong direction) I arrive to discover a pretty enough bay, but it’s absolutely heaving with people - and the odd pedalo. You can hardly see the much lauded clear blue water. One section that is visible is an unattractive algae green shade and there’s a very incongruous Arab style pavilion on a pier. I rent a sunbed (he won’t give me a reduction even though it’s now four o’clock) and join the melee. It’s very comfortable with the sea breeze. I wasn’t accorded an umbrella, which is probably just as well when I recall past escapades.
A pleasant day is rounded off with a fish supper down by the port – and Sicilian cassata. The fish is okay and the ice cream scrummy. There’s a couple sitting in the table in front of me who haven’t spoken to each other their entire meal. They speak directly to the waiter and pointedly ignore each other. He is drinking vast quantities of beer and she is engaged with her mobile phone. I wonder what they argued about?
Today, I’m a traveller, rather than a tourist again, and the morning sees me taking a train across Sicily to Siracusa. I weighed up the options and read that the driving was mad, the roads narrow and the traffic horrendous. I have to change in Catania, Sicily's industrial heart, – if I get there. Someone is playing that amusing game of change the platform and only announce the alteration in a language that none of the intending passengers understand. When we all eventually embark at the correct spot the train tries to leave several times. The driver keeps hurtling out of his cabin and shouting at his colleagues down the carriage. We progress 50 metres up the platform stopping and starting before there is some kind of Latin expletive and we finally depart.
It’s a pretty, rather than dramatic, journey, much more comfortable than my mainland adventure. We hug the coast for a while and then roll along though a yellow sun-baked landscape, gently sloping hayfields, bales rolled and ready and clumps of silver tinged olive trees. Small stone towers dot the hilltops. As we progress, the hills increase in size and the stone towers become little walled towns or castles, frustratingly obscured by blurs of trees or lofty prickly pear hedges. Nearing the east coast the fields flatten again and there are the classic cypresses framing the view. Looming in the background, one single peak, hazy and indistinct, but Etna, nevertheless.
Sardinia, Rimini, Bologna, Sicily – Italy has seen a resurgence of interest on my part this year. It’s an incredible country, the architecture is arguably the most beautiful in the world. I’m still coming to terms with the modern Italians, however. I’m trying hard to stay open minded but they seem to me an arrogant, loud and superficial people. Elegantly turned out, coiffured and made up yes. To be fair, people performing their jobs, receptionist, shopkeepers, drivers, are courteous and helpful, even going an extra mile to help me know what to do within the confines of their role.
But out on the street it’s a different matter. No-one was remotely interested in helping me when I lost my purse. Most have no conception of queuing or any respect for anyone else’s needs for space or quiet, let alone aid. They might have invented simpatico but it’s not in evidence. It’s a very marked contrast with the very socially aware Japanese. (Unless the Japanese are taking photos, of course, when it’s an entirely different story.) On the train even the middle aged passengers keep trying out their ring tones and play videos on their phones loud enough for everyone, at the other end of the train, to hear.
We arrive on time - my train journey has been going too well. I scan the departure boards, but see no mention of a connection to Siracusa. I finally track down a rail employee who gesticulates that I should go outside. The train has become a bus. I’m sure there’s a good explanation.
The bus journey takes an hour longer than the train time I was given (it's just like Southern Rail), as we have to keep looping off the autostrada to drop people off at the stations. It seems that this route has been cancelled for the whole summer. There’s no evidence of anyone working on it - though a couple of JCBs and some concrete slabs are parked up by one station.
I think I’ve chosen well for my hotel this time. It’s right on the edge of Ortygia Island, the oldest part of Siracusa, which goes back even farther than Palermo and has Corinthian origins. My room is huge and well-tended and I have a sea view (through the flags waving along the hotel parapet). Though the water is yellowish and there are whiffs of hydrogen sulphide when I turn on the taps. I was expecting volcanic associations and I have them.
Ortygia Island has mythological status. This is where the goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis.(Artemis amazingly, then helped Leto across the sea to Delos, where Leto gave birth to her twin, Apollo). Ortygia was also the mythological home of Arethusa, a chaste nymph who, while fleeing a river god, was transformed by Artemis into a spring, traversed underground and appeared here, thus providing water for the city.
I’m so exhausted after the heat and travelling that I fall asleep when I arrive. But then hunger calls and I venture out to explore the island. I’m totally blasé now about Greek ruins, marble fountains and astounding cathedrals. Ortygia is slightly different in that it is a charmingly atmospheric rabbit warren of winding small streets leading to the sea on each side. There are two main thoroughfares lined with churches and bijou shops and dotted with ancient relics. And a cathedral of course. It was built by in the seventh century , superimposed on the (5th century BC) Temple of Athena.
There's also a thirteenth century castello at the end, with the best view, guarding the harbour. The Maniace Castle is enjoyed by the public for its 13th century architecture and baroque style restoration. Standing on the tip of the island of Ortigia, the Maniace Castle has a varied history. It was first a royal residence, and then (under Ferdinand II of Aragon) a horrible prison. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was equipped with cannons due to its strategic location and then, in 1860 it was conquered by Giuseppe Garibaldi. But the whole island is like one mini fortress. Plenty of fancy little restaurants line the walls, monopolizing the best sea views.
I’ve also learned that it’s true that all roads lead to Rome. The main street in most towns seems to be called the Via Roma. This one ends in another colourful street market.
A very overpriced meal in a waterfront restaurant (six euros for a plate of chopped up iceberg lettuce that is called a green salad). I’m having real difficulty finding decent food in Italy. And – what are the chances – when there must be about a thousand restaurants in Siracusa and Palermo - the same couple are sitting in front of me eating. They must have made up - they are speaking today.
Now I’m back to being a tourist. Well sort of. It’s not at all easy navigating – there is very little to help tourists find their way. Most people have cars or are on coach tours or cruise trips, with attached guides. There are numerous stands offering boat trips, but very little else.
According to some historians, Syracuse (or Siracusa in Sicilian) was the largest city in the ancient world for some time, a powerful city state, as eminent as Athens. It dates back 2,700 years and was the birthplace of Archimedes. Later, under Emperor Constans II, it served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire (663–669). So it's no surprise that the city is notable for its rich Greek and Roman history and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Neapolis Archaeological Park, is at the other end of Siracusa, off the island, but I feel it has to be seen. There are two amphitheatres, one Greek and one Roman and a hippodrome. Is it cultural sacrilege to feel a loss of enthusiasm for Roman ruins after you’ve seen them in a variety of settings? The powers that be have elected to spoil the Greek theatre by covering all the ancient stone seats with wooden planking, so they can perform modern day concerts. The most enjoyable part of the park is a grotto area pretty with oleanders, an old stack and Dionysus’s Ear - a large pixie pinna shaped cave, which echoes.
The temperature has soared past forty degrees in the shade today, while I’ve walked seven miles, half of it uphill. I’ve consumed two Sicilian ice granitas, a coca cola and five bottles of mineral water. Mad dogs and Englishmen indeed.
Back to the bridge over the island and a boat trip with a cool breeze is a welcome relief. I get to share the vessel with a family of seven Israelis. We sail under the Umbertino Bridge (it's high tide and we have to duck) round the island and out to some caves. The tourist patter goes that they are Capuchin Cave, the Coral cave, the Stalactite Cave, and the Heart-shaped Cave of Love. We aslo stop by to see the Arethusa Spring. I take photos of the castle and domes of the island from the water and then the caves. The family take pictures of each other.
And at last I’ve eaten a decent meal, at a price, in a small courtyard restaurant tucked off the main street. Divine prawns and sea bass with two caiprinhas for 68 euros.
Never say die. Its 42 degrees today and even the Italians are calling this a heatwave, but am I on the beach? No, I’m in a car with Joseph and his daughter Stephanie from Malta, visiting the three UNESCO towns of Sicily: Ragusa, Modica and Noto. They are supposedly the epitome of amazing Baroque architecture, with Noto touted as the most beautiful Baroque town in the world. So it’s not to be missed.
All three cities are UNESCO listed and were rebuilt, in the Sicilian Baroque style, after they were virtually razed by an earthquake in 1693. The quake was the most powerful in Italian recorded history, caused several tsunamis and killed over half the population of Noto.
I am pleased to say the trip is worth it, though it is utterly exhausting in the broiling heat. Noto, with its limestone churches, palaces and carved balconies, all newly scrubbed up and honey coloured is dazzling. It was rebuilt on the banks of the River Asinaro. The cathedral (top of the post) is reconstructed 18th-century, but there are also palaces: the Palazzo Ducezio, now the town hall, with its suitably gilded Hall of Mirrors and the Palazzo Nicolaci with its uniquely ornate balconies. There's even a mock triumphal arch, the 19th-century Porta Reale, marking the entrance to the city.
The old Noto was actually five miles north and had a venerable history. In the sixteenth century it was so well known as a cultural centre, that it attracted hordes of artists and scientists and was dubbed 'The Ingenious City' by Ferdinand III.
We all prefer the character of Ragusa, sprawling over two hills with a tiny blue domed church at the bottom. The views across to the town are stunning. The city is divided into two distinct areas, the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla, and the higher Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town). In-between is the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges. The upper town has the obligatory cathedral, dedicated to St John the Baptist. It sounds much more impressive in Italian: San Giovanni Battista. Ragusa Ibla (once you've staggered down the steep slopes and steps) is home to palaces, gardens and a plethora of churches. The one with the blue dome is Santa Maria dell 'Itria: built by the Knights of Malta. One church is called, appropriately, Santa Maria delle Scale (Saint Mary of the Steps). The cathedral here (yes, there's another one), has 250 steps.
Ragusa is more recently (well, relatively) famous, for its opposition to the policies of Mussolini. The town was said to have welcomed the 'liberating' American and British forces 'with unbridled enthusiasm'.
Modica, in-between, though it has a lovely cathedral too, seems to be more famous for its chocolate, which doesn’t melt, as it has no cocoa fat. (And in my opinion, therefore no point.) There's even a chocolate museum.
An economy supper tonight - fish and chips on the street. In Sicily, this is a brown paper cone of fried squid, sardines, anchovies and a prawn with a separate cone of chips for 10 euros. As I’ve said before, Italy is not cheap.
An early start today, partly to try and beat the heat and partly because I'm now travelling north along the east coast of Sicily, back through Catania. I haven’t a clue how long this bus replacement to Catania is going to take, or how I’m going to get to my hotel on the slopes of Etna.
I go into a bar to use the toilet while I’m waiting for the bus, but the bartenders won’t let me in. They direct me instead to the station, which is closed. There’s a toilet on the platform, but you need a token to access it, which you have to buy from the station. The bus driver tries to help. At the next closed-down station he directs me to another bar. He asks an Italian woman to go with me to explain and make sure they allow me to use it. She refuses. My opinion of Italians isn’t improving.
The traffic round Catania is superlatively awful (I’m so glad I’m not driving) and I miss my onward train by two minutes. But I’ve managed to phone the hotel and they are going to meet me at Fiumifreddo. Great name - I think it means 'cold river.'
Mount Etna, a UNESCO heritage site in its own right, has reappeared as a massive, but still indistinct backdrop on the left, behind Catania. It's the highest mountain in Italy, south of the Alps. According to Wikipedia it's 3,357 metres tall, but apparently its height changes every time it erupts, which is often. It's the most active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. I shall be approaching it with trepidation.
To the right, the sparkling Ionian Sea, with red roofed villages littering the coast. Apparently no-one comes to stay in my hotel in remote Linguaglossa on the slopes of Etna, unless they have a car. The hotel takes pity and offers me a driver for a couple of hours to get me closer to the summit, after I have rebutted their suggestion of an afternoon by the piscina in the town.
It’s a long and winding road with views across to the sea and great clumps of broom in flower. Much is made of the 2002 eruption when lava flows scarred the volcano and threatened Linguaglossa (they prayed to St Agno). The molten rock still took out four hotels and a parking and leisure area. There are a few small wooden cabins now selling drinks and souvenirs. A young lady (I must be getting old writing that), at an information point, says I can go for a guided walk to the crater if I like, in ten minutes. No, in half an hour. Well an hour.
An hour and fifteen minutes later I set off with a guide and a Dutch couple. Not to the summit I hasten to add, which is a long way at 3300 metres. It’s too dangerous. It’s emitting sulphurous fumes all the time, which is why it’s so indistinct. And the wind is very strong today. We’re going to the secondary craters, made in the 2002 eruption, which are a 300 metre vertical scramble. It’s advertised as a four kilometre two hour walk, suitable for anyone in reasonable health. I’ve seen this kind of description before.
As usual, it turns into an assault course up and down lava slopes, through sluggish black sand and along precipitous knife edge ridges where the wind threatens to blow us over. But the guide is good and so are the views and look how fit I am getting. Especially, as we are out for an additional hour and walk five miles. It’s a text book study in volcanic activity, lava galore, pumice, basalt, fumaroles, cannon holes, intrusions and extrusions, secondary cones, secondary craters and fields of volcanic bombs.
Sicily - one of the most captivating places in the world? Mmmm it has much to offer, but like its people it seems to have lost its soul at times. Perhaps the quiet of the energy sapping heat detracts? Despite this, Italy overall must be a much stronger contender for top five countries in the world than Albania. My specific expectations? I haven’t seen anyone that looks as if they are from the Cosa Nostra. Though how would I know? I have seen some tower blocks interrupting the most beautiful of vistas. This could only have been allowed under the strongest of persuasion. Etna is imposing, instructive and elusive rather than thrilling, and the lemons are disappointingly small and battered. I suppose size isn’t everything…..
I landed at Rimini Airport this morning, from Albania. Now I'm back in Rimini, having been robbed at the bus stop as I was setting off for a day trip to San Marino. I haven’t had anything to eat all day and I had to get up at 5.30 a.m. The bank still hasn’t called to sort me out moneywise, so here we go again, a round of calling Visa and Santander. And another. The response is pretty awful. Surely this constitutes an emergency? Have they no idea what it’s like to be penniless and alone? The hotel receptionist refuses to let me have any food. Hurray - I’ve found a packet of biscuits on the breakfast bar.
When I finally get a call to say I can fetch my money I can now see that the area round the station and hotel are very different to the rest of town, which is tidy and elegant. There’s a large Afro-Arab sector with bazaar type shops. I take a kebab back to my room in the interest of saving money, as well as satisfying my hunger. The hotel lift is out of order. I’m being dive bombed by mosquitoes and there isn’t any air conditioning. Time for bed.
I’m very tempted to hop on the first train out of town. Rimini has left a bad taste in my mouth, but the guidebooks say that there are sights to be seen and so I set off to find them. I’m glad I did. I head to the water first. From the air it looked as if the whole of the nine mile beach was concealed by rows of sunbeds and it is. The sand is powdery and lovely, though just about every inch of it is covered by money making enterprises. It really is a sea of umbrellas, stretching in every direction.
The beach is lined with pastel coloured five or six storey hotels, nothing too huge. There are a few free stretches where you can set up your own gear and there is a mandatory five metre stretch along the high-water line where anyone can stroll and swim. And it’s a pleasant stroll following the sea breeze, as it’s already gearing up to sizzling again.
I wander along to the port and alongside the narrowing canal mouth, lined with little yachts and dinghies. They are setting up for a huge parade and street concert tonight, hefting hundreds of enormous speakers off some of the boats. It’s going to be very loud. I’m glad I won’t be here.
It’s a rewarding walk. The bridges are decorated with banks of scarlet and white flowers and even the graffiti (that must be the right word for it here) is scenically reflected in the still water. A man stops me to tell me ‘You have beautiful eyes’ in Italian. ‘Bellissimo - capisce?’ Even I have enough Italian to understand that. Today is definitely an improvement on yesterday.
The canal ends in a basin crossed by an impressively old and picturesque Roman bridge. The Ponte di Tiberio. One of the oldest in the world. I’m surprised that there are such ancient ruins here. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s a bit like finding a triumphal arch in Brighton. But this is a Italy and Rimini is a town founded by the Romans. And there is an ancient arch here, (Augustus), as well as some lovely winding cobblestone streets, some imposing Venetian palazzos, a huge church cum mausoleum and fountains on a couple of very nice piazzas.
The Tempio Malatestiano was originally a thirteenth-century Gothic cathedral (San Francesco), belonging to the Franciscans. It was probably frescoed by Giotto. It takes its popular name from the Renaissance patron and nobleman, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, who hosted Leonardo da Vinci at his house. He commissioned the church's reconstruction by Leon Battista Alberti around 1450, as a mausoleum for himself (and his girlfirend). It was a contentious move. The Pope objected particularly to the 'pagan and profane' sculptures that were installed.
There are Saturday street markets strung along all the main thoroughfares, which are mostly pedestrianised, though you have to watch out for the bicycles weaving in and out.
There’s also a huge modern civic building on the outskirts of Rimini, that is fronted by flagpoles carrying the flags of all the EEC nations. The flags are all waving briskly in the breeze, except for the British Union flag which hangs down limply, as it’s missing a string. That can’t be a coincidence – surely?
Another shower and out again to catch the train to Bologna. It’s five minutes late (this is not Japan) and the electronic signs tell me it is 29 degrees Celsius inside the split level carriages and we are travelling at up to 155 kilometres per hour. Most of the time it’s a lot slower than that, as it’s a stopping train, so I am hoping that I will get a better look at the scenery.
The route takes us along the Italian Riviera and right across the top of the boot to Piacenza, skirting the Apennines. There are glimpses of the Adriatico to the right, as we chug along and then rows of vines, rolling hills and little church spires as we turn west. The train is packed, the whole of Italy seems to be travelling to Bologna too. I’m glad I didn’t bring my big case. The temperature is also rising. Maybe I should have opted for the faster journey. Some teenagers are cavorting and singing. It’s just like England.
There’s a long queue waiting for a taxi at Bologna Centrale - Grandi Stazioni. And I’m still intent on conserving my cash, even though the sun is beating down, I’m already wringing wet and it’s over a mile. But it’s a pleasant and interesting walk, mainly through marble floored and shady colonnades that abut the many designer shops. Apparently there are 53 kilometres of these in the city and they’re a jolly good idea.
I only came to Bologna because the airline routing to Sicily worked best this way. Wow - it’s amazing. A glorious cornucopia of wonderful architecture. Why isn’t it on more bucket lists? Bologna is the historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, in northern Italy and the oldest university town in the world. (The university was founded in 1088.) It has three nicknames: La Dotta (“the learned one”- for its famed university), La Grassa (“the fat one”- for it's cuisine), and La Rossa (“the red one”- a reference to the red rooftops throughout the city).
My hotel is just off the mammoth and wonderful Piazza Maggiore, lined with the usual arched colonnades, cafes and medieval and Renaissance structures, the City Hall, the Fountain of Neptune and the Basilica di San Petronio with the fascinating contrast in its unfinished brick and marble facade. The Palazzo Communale (much more evocative than City Hall) has those incredible swallowtail crenellations. I think it’s called Ghibelline style.
Just round the corner are the two towers, leaning Asinelli and Garisenda, most famous of the city’s many medieval edifices, with another dome and clock tower peeping between them. There are clouds of swallows themselves weaving around them. It’s a panoply of utterly tasteful terracotta, cream, burnt umber and yellow ochre with arches and cobbles diving off in every direction. Farrow and Ball would be proud. And everywhere you turn your gaze there’s another church tower, a dome, or a palazzo or a magnificent portico. Gates and turrets, remnants from the old city walls. The guide books say that the university side of the city, the east, has more edge. It’s definitely scruffier, more Bohemian, with street food, cheaper cafes and graffiti. The library features coats of arms belonging to elected members of the student council.
I’ve walked ten miles today in searing heat, exploring two cities and had to have four showers. Time for dinner. Italian food hasn’t hit the mark yet (though the ice cream has). Dinner is disappointing and bland, even though it’s a local (and not cheap) restaurant that has good reviews. I’m observing the locals to see if they cope with eating spaghetti bolognese any better than the English. I don’t think it’s any less messy, though they do rotate their forks very rapidly when they are hoovering it up.
It's Sunday in Bologna and most of the city is slumbering. It's still sweltering but now it's thunderstorms and driving rain. These colonnades come in really useful. Except when they run out. I'm sheltering in a doorway hoping it will ease up soon. One of the flat owners has already stuck his head out to see what I'm doing. I think I might have leaned on his doorbell.
Up in time to be a proper tourist and take a toy train to the San Luca sanctuary on top of a hill outside town. It is touted as being a four kilometre climb up the hill (under colonnades of course), after traversing the five kilometres that take you outside the city proper, past the football stadium. The reward is to be stupendous views. I wasn't looking forward to the climb up but decide it will be a healthy option. So, I can't help but be relieved when the train turns up the hill and deposits us right at the top. I decide I will compensate by walking the whole way back into the centre.
The church itself is pretty enough and the views are good, but interrupted by vegetation. There isn't a whole cityscape or view of the Apennines spread before us. So while Bologna gives even Firenze a run for its money inside the city, the much lauded views across the Arno take the prize. Through the gaps in the trees Bologna is a sea of red roofs. This explains why it's called La Rossa - it's much browner from inside up.
I'm drenched again when I get back to my hotel, but for different reasons today.
Sardinia is big. In fact, it is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily. It nestles west of the Italian peninsula along with Corsica, which is a French island and closer to Italy than Sardinia is. Sardinia is also one of the 20 regions of Italy and one of the five Italian regions with some degree of domestic autonomy. Partly because Sardinia's large and partly because we're after a beach holiday Susanna and I are headed for the north coast and the Costa Smeralda.
The guide books say that before the development began this area of Sardinia was only frequented by shepherds and their flocks. The area was first developed by the Aga Khan in the sixties and he wanted to keep it all up-market. This is the most expensive real estate in Europe.
Unusually, the Costa Smeralda is exactly as I hoped and expected. The buildings are all relatively modern, but they have all been designed to meld in with the wild mountain scenery and the pine and tufty chamomile. The roofs are charmingly red rustic with curved tiles and the chimney pots all have quaint triangular stone caps; some even have arches, echoing Gaudi. Sprays of bougainvillea and oleander in full exotic bloom scramble up the walls and along all the roads and the air is scented with jasmine. The roads are wide and modern, except where they teeter over the mountains to quaint villages. It’s difficult to fault it.
Our bay, Porto Sole, on the edge of Baja Sardinia. It is very pretty with views across extraordinary curly rock formations (limestone with 'granite intrusions'). The beach is ‘white sand’ with plenty of sunbeds, though not too many people, and the water is exceptionally clear. It’s cobalt blue rather than emerald though, so I’m not entirely sure why this is called the Emerald Coast.
Our hotel, the Villa Gemella, is definitely the poor relation. Everything else in the vicinity is opulent and stylish. But we have everything we need. It’s immaculately turned out. There’s a pleasant pool and we are perched above the bay. We can see it from our tiny bedroom window - if we stand up. I’m not sure it really qualifies as the pay extra for a sea view that was requisitioned. But perhaps I’m being pedantic. The owner reminds me of Rising Damp Rigsby, but he is definitely more affable.
The youngsters on the beach at Porto sole are stick thin and firm skinned and wear thong bikinis to fully exhibit their attributes. But then so does everyone who isn't adolescent. I've never seen so much cellulite and folds of fat on public display in my life. It’s obviously good that folk don't care about complying with what the media tells us it's okay to put on show. But what happened to the health benefits of the much lauded healthy Mediterranean diet?
The beach is much too comfortable to abandon, so a sun bed is home for the day. In the evening there are a proliferation of restaurants, most of which offer the same menu of fresh seafood, pasta and pizza. On the first night we walk into town proper for a cliff top seafood supper with the gin and tonic brigade. We get lost trying to return on a different scenic route, proffered by Google, via hills and beaches. At least we work off a few more calories, wandering around for an hour, searching for a road that doesn’t exist.
After that, organisation is taken over by Rigsby, who books us dinner in exceptionally good establishments: fresh grilled fish, fairy lights, good looking charming waiters, and ferries us back and forth to boot. He has also organised a boat trip round the islands. He is acting as taxi for that too. Trip Advisor says he has an English wife, but she is not in evidence and hasn’t been mentioned and we don’t like to ask. He is very keen on his tabby cat.
After two days on the sunbeds of Sardinia we are up for the rigours of a boat trip out to the Maddalena National Park. This is a cluster of islands off the coast to the north. Seven large islands and 55 tiny isolotti. This stunning, almost Caribbean landscape, is the home of the really rich and famous. They were hoping it would stay secluded. As we motor through the archipelago, the mountains of Corsica form a grey backdrop on the horizon.
Spargi, Budelli, Santa Maria and La Maddalena. La Maddalena is a busting port scenically crammed with ornate shutters, pastel stucco, locals smoking and drinking coffee and fishing boats. Surprisingly large, there are even cinemas. It was a favourite of Garibaldi and there are various memorabilia to prove this.
Ever more incredible rocky outcrops guide our way. Further out, the water is so swirly turquoise and ultramarine it would give the Blue Lagoon a run for its money. The tiny bays are utterly gorgeous. And, from a distance, the beaches described as white sand actually do look white, though close up they're really light beige. Several are roped off, due to entrepreneurs removing nature’s bounty. Budelli 's Spiaggia Rosa was famously pink, until the tourists overran it.
Spargi is uninhabited, framed by sea grass, as well as amazing granite intrusions. At Santa Maria we drop anchor in yet another stunning bay. But, (there's always a ‘but’ isn't there?) there are about 80 other boats moored in the same spot. Most of them are tenders from the super yachts that dot the larger bays and harbours. So it's a little too cosy on the strip of beach for comfort. And like our own adopted beach the water, though still crystal clear, even in the depths, is a little too bracing to be totally enjoyable.
Porto Cervo is the centre of this billionaire’s playground, the ritzy anchorage for the mega sized yachts, so it has to be a port of call. What’s more it’s pouring with rain after a beautiful four days (we fly home tonight) and it isn’t much fun on the beach. Rigsby offers to chauffeur us there.
The architecture is similar to the rest of the coast, although tending to white and brown. Otherwise, it’s Bond Street by the Sea. There's every high end Italian brand (and a few others for good measure) featured behind the stucco frontages. The bling is extraordinary- everything is sparkly and ornate - and I wouldn't be tempted even if i could afford anything. Needless to say nothing in the windows is priced. The shops are all empty however. None of the Italians wandering the piazzas seem any more inclined to spend than we are. Everyone clusters in the one seafront café that has affordable coffee, waiting for the deluge to finish. At least, it’s easier to leave Sardinia and face the Easyjet journey home when things are less idyllic.
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 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.
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.
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