Tuscany part 2

We’re just about to move on from Tuscany up to Lake Garda, so I thought I’d share some of our general impressions and more unusual experiences of Tuscany.

We’ve loved the colours of the landscape, the rolling countryside and the lovely walled towns built on hills. So magnificently perched on the top of hills with streets that wind ever upwards leading to grand facades of buildings that you can hardly see properly, let alone photograph due to the buildings being so close together. It does seem like they’ve met the challenge to put as much beauty into as small a place as possible.

Tuscany also has a large number of unmade up roads that appear to be official roads, with proper road signs, but with no tarmac. We’ve followed a couple of routes where the tarmac has suddenly run out and then we’ve driven for miles along tracks with lots of helpful road signs about no edges, loose stones, narrow lanes and been overtaken at speed by one of the many Fiats on the road.

At one of our supermarket visits we were faced with long queues at the check out and Roger decided that a trip to the self scan might be a good idea. I was a bit nervous, as I haven’t always been successful in England so how was this going to work. We pressed into action scanning items, and all went well until the machine started talking to us. Presumably something about bagging items, or an unknown item in the bagging area. Very hard to tell when you don’t speak Italian. We pressed on, until the light started flashing and it was clear that we would need someone to come and sort it out. Eventually a nice lady came to help, but her English was only slightly better than our Italian. Anyway, she removed a couple of items from the bagging areas (I think on reflection I’d put them in the bag,and Roger had pressed the ‘I don’t want to bag this item button’ but it’s not clear) and we were able to get to the end. We put our card in and breathed a sigh of relief. Shopping done. We then went to leave and were faced with a barrier. It didn’t seem to want to open, so I pushed myself through, only to be stopped by the woman who’d previously helped us. After much waving of arms, another customer showed us her receipt and a bar code at the bottom. We needed to scan the bar code to open the barrier to let ourselves out. We did get there eventually and left, heads held high and shopping all done.

Tuscany is beautiful and I recommend it to you. The beautiful walled towns, the architecture, the rolling countryside, the food, wine, gelato and perhaps even a trip to the self scan to spice up an otherwise dull visit to the supermarket.

Finally, being a brass bander I was particularly attracted to a lovely tie shop in Siena with this lovely display. Thought that it was worth the sharing with you…..

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Tuscany

It was lovely to drive into the countryside, and we chose Monte Argentario, as our destination, some 120km north of Rome. Apparently a Roman play location for the rich! It was beautiful, 3 roads on and basically one that went around part of the landmass. Beautiful mountain, beaches, posh yachts and clear blue sea. We managed to find a camp site that would have us for two nights and had a very relaxing time.
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On Thursday we visited a large walled hill town with lovely old streets and views over the Tuscan/Umbrian countryside called Orvieto. (strictly speaking this shouldn’t be mentioned in this blog as it’s in Umbria, but it was on the border and Tuscany was clearly visible – can I get away with this?) It had another one of those wonderful cathedrals, or at least the facade was wonderful, the sides were striped horizontally blue and white and rather reminded me of the film the boy in striped pyjamas. We enjoyed sitting at a cafe in the square overlooking the cathedral to have a tea and lunch, and had one of the poshest pots of tea that I’ve ever seen. Note the lovely tea bag. I did investigate the purchase of some, but the coast of €1 each, put me off. With the quantity of tea we drink this wasn’t a reasonable option.
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Our next stop was to go to Stigliano, a small hamlet to the south of Siena. This is our week of luxury in an HPB apartment. We decided to start the week off with a walk from the site, which was lovely in the sun until the gorgeous Roger persuaded me that as our planned walk was so short why don’t we add one of the other walks on. So we trudged up a particularly steep track again, and commenced this other walk. I think Roger may have handed in his previously impeccable sense of direction with his warrant card when he retired, as we ended up walking around in circles, joining the very steep track again which wasn’t what was in the plan!

On Saturday we zoomed off to Siena. A particularly beautiful city built on a hill with fantastic narrow streets, beautiful buildings and lovely open piazzas. Additionally there was a chocolate festival going on in the main square which added to our interest.
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Sunday saw a visit to a little town called Torrita di Siena, a small town, on a hill, celebrating a ‘Palio dei Somari’. Not entirely sure what was going on, or why, but we enjoyed a parade through the streets which included a brass band and then 8 sets of different teams all of whom paraded with flag wavers, drummers, what we’d probably describe as a carnival King, Queen, Prince and Princesses, a knight and a priest all dressed in the same costumes. It was very loud in the narrow streets and very colourful. We then finished the day in a temporary arena built in one of the palazzos where the whole processions processed again, prizes were awarded, and then the day finished off with donkey racing – a very unpredictable sport. It ended in chaos with donkeys losing their riders, but still winning races and the crowds rushing onto the track when the winning donkey passed the line.
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Caen to Rome

We left Edinburgh and zoomed back home, stopping long enough to take our son Jack out for lunch in Durham before staying for the night in Askrigg (very beautiful and definitely a place to revisit) and visiting our daughter in Sheffield. We arrived home on Tuesday evening for a quick turn around, before leaving on Wednesday evening to start our southern adventure with a cruise from Portsmouth to Caen. After a very short but sound sleep we woke early to face the French morning traffic and our urgent timetable that required us to reach Rome by Saturday 15th March in order to watch England in the final Saturday of the 6 Nations competition for 2014.

My only previous experience of driving in Europe was in a left hand drive hire car, and for me this was incredibly difficult. I kept trying to change gear with the window winder and really struggled on roundabouts. Fortunately I seemed to do better in our own right hand drive camper. The French motorways were mostly empty and we swallowed up the miles going around Paris in a tunnel system that was only just higher than our camper. Not sure that ducking is terribly helpful in achieving successful driving through this, but it made me feel slightly safer.

Our route took us via Paris, Auxerre, Lyons and Chambery before we decided to stop for the night. We end up spending the night in a campsite in the Alps at a place called Bourg St Maurice which had access to Les Arcs. The campsite was surrounded by snow capped mountains and we had skiers for neighbours. We slept soundly, ready for the rest of our journey on Friday.
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Friday dawned bright but fresh. We packed up and asked TomTom to show us the way, then we were off. We were directed up a very steep mountain pass that had stunning views but was one that completely paralysed me with fear. What is the point of building roads up mountains, with random road barriers that stop before you’ve even gone around the corner? I handed over the driving to the lovely Roger who manfully took us up the mountain muttering comments like, “the vans doing well,but it’d be nice to be in a sports car.” I was concentrating on not falling off the mountain and was too busy to respond! We passed coaches, mini buses and other vehicles on a road that surely should have been one way for safety. Anyway, as we neared the top, well above the snow line, we passed a sign saying ‘Col de Saint Bernard Ferme’. It was at this point that it occurred to us that going over the Alps wasn’t going to happen, and sure enough the road was being skied on and was totally impassable. We drove back down the mountain and on to a more main route using Tunnel du Frejus to pass through the Alps into Italy. Not as romantic as going over the top, and totally spoilt my ‘Maria’ moment however we did have a timetable to keep.

The Italian roads were another thing entirely. They seemed to be mostly built off the ground on great big over passes. We wonder if this was to get over any planning issues, but to cut a long journey short, we made it to Rome and to a camp side on the north of the city with promises of a shuttle bus into all the sights.

Saturday was the day of the final matches for the 6 nations competition. England were still in it, but we needed to beat Italy and for France to help us out against Ireland unless we could win by a huge margin. We got ourselves to within sight of the Stadio Olympico to be faced with loads of fellow England supporters, dressed in white and drinking a beer in the sun before the match. Obviously it would have been rude not to joint them. The stadium was magnificent and it filled quickly. It’s enough to make the spine tingle when your anthem is sung by thousands of people at a sporting occasion, and Saturday was no different for both the English and Italian anthems. The game was off. We were spoilt with an English victory, 8 tries, (7 English ones) and lovely Italians for company next to us who clapped and cheered with us consoled to their wooden spoon. We met friends who’d also come to Rome for the rugby for a lovely meal which completed a near perfect day. If only France had scored that last try…..
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Other sights taken in during our visit have been the Colosseum, Palatino, tomb of the unknown soldier at Il Vittoriano, the Pantheon, Trevis fountain, the Vatican and numerous highly decorated cathedrals and churches across Rome.
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On our last day in Rome, we were helping an older French couple on the metro as it was their first day. Unfortunately they were the victim of a very efficient pick pocket and whilst he got his wallet back he lost all of the cash that had been in it. We’d had no problems at all , and had felt very safe whilst taking just basic safety precautions, but I guess you do need to be very careful that you look after your belongings carefully. We’ve reached the stage where we’ve had enough of crowds and need to escape to some countryside, so see where that takes us.

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Scotland

After Keswick we headed north to Scotland. We stayed in the Trossachs on the side of Loch Achtay. The weather was grey, so we only managed one peak, Ben A’an, which was beautiful and sheltered due to the forest path. We managed a trip on the Lady of the Lake on Loch Katrine which would probably have been beautiful had the weather been clearer. The coffee with whisky certainly brightened the trip.
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On Friday I attended, with 4,500 others, an orientation session for us 'Clydesider' Commonwealth Games 2014 volunteers at the Emirates Arena, Glasgow. This was very exciting and was an opportunity to hear about what has happened so far, and what's to happen over the coming 5 months. Lots of young sports men and women were showcasing their sports and it was very impressive to be next to the pole jumper and the gymnasts. Pole jumping seems to require some very special skills…. Having been very buoyed up with the pumping music – which obviously included The Proclaimers (hooray, but could have had more), and the talks and videos, we then saw the volunteer uniform and off we went into the night. Shame there's no tartan in the uniform, but may have to try and find some tartan trainers, or at least tartan laces to go with it.

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Yesterday saw Roger and I in Edinburgh, with the hottest tickets in the city for Murrayfield to see Scotland vs France in the penultimate weekend of the 6 nations rugby. We were obviously Scottish supporters for the day. The city seemed to be full of jolly Frenchmen and many kilted Scottish. Interestingly it wasn’t just the Scottish wearing kilts and it was a bunch (if this is the appropriate group reference) of French kilted men who showed the surrounding crowds what is worn under a kilt. Fortunately I wasn’t quick enough with a camera to catch this, but did love the comment of a small girl nearby who said, “they just showed their bottoms!” The crowd was loud and raucous, and I can say with confidence that Frenchmen do still say, ‘Oo la la,’ at what may or may not have been appropriate times during matches. We had fantastic seats and had a birds eye view of both of the Scottish tries, but at the end of the day were robbed, another French win in the dying moments of a 6 nations match.

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Today we went off to visit Britannia at Leith. What a beautiful yacht and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you’re in Edinburgh. The tour takes you through lots of both the royal and the staff areas, and the tea room is wonderful. It’s like seeing a bit of history. Back to the flat to watch England beat the Welsh in today’s crunch match. Roll on Rome next week and the deciding weekend of the 6 nations for 2014….

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Keswick

Saturday 1st March started early for our northern adventure. We left Hampshire via the A34 then the M4, cutting across to the M5. Not the normal route but we quite like the trip through Birdlip as it reminds us of our many happy trips to the Greenbelt festival. We stopped for a lovely lunch with Roger’s mum in the Wirral and then headed off to Keswick, one of my most favourite places.

We’d been given a bottle of champagne by on of our senior colleagues as a retirement gift and during the conversation that followed had discussed our mutual love of the Lakes in general and Cat Bells in particular. We had hoped that we’d be able to get up to Cat Bells and drink the champagne, taking the opportunity for a photo to send to our colleague. I’d also been given a flask that had been beautifully engraved and you have to take a flask of coffee walking, so we hoped this would bring another photo opportunity.

In the warmth and comfort of our accommodation we made plans. The forecast was pretty rubbish, but just in case it might be ok, we could walk from Grange up to Cat Bells. Not our normal route, but interesting to do it from that end. The next morning we woke to beautiful sun so made an early start and were walking by 9 from Grange. the weather was glorious, tee shirts all the way – until we got to the top when the clouds drew in and the rain fell. After layering up,  we decided it was definitely too cold for champagne, no matter how well chilled and so retreated to a slightly more protected spot for a coffee.
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We had thought that we might go from Cat Bells, up to Maiden Moore and then across to High Spy before heading down via Rigghead quarries. What seemed a good idea in the warm and shelter of a dry pub over a glass of local ale, seemed like a stupid idea when it was very wet and cold, but somehow Roger persuaded me that it was both safe and a good idea. We therefore commenced the walk upwards. As the weather deteriorated further I helpfully commented to Roger that we may as well be walking on an unsteady treadmill for all the pleasure of the view we were enjoying, but I was as ever ignored! We got to the snow line, where on top of the rain, decreased visibility and cold it was then icy and altogether very disorientating. Our children who have both achieved their Gold DOE expeditions would have been horrified that we had gone up without the necessary emergency blanket, additional clothing, emergency rations and compass – however we kept going. I’ve no idea what the view from the top was like, but was very grateful for the large number of cairns that other helpful walkers and the lovely national trust had built to help us down.

As you will know from the fact that I’m writing this, we did make it down, and the weather did cheer slightly. I even forgave Roger for putting us in danger. Fortunately our room had a bath, so not only did we get back safely, we even managed to warm up quickly. A walk of about 8 miles, but a gain of some 1,785 feet.

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Today we’ve left our beloved Keswick, strapped my beautiful flowers into the car again, and travelled further north to Tigh Mor in the Trossachs. Looks beautiful and we can’t wait to explore more.

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