Ponte a Serraglio

Ponte a Serraglio
Painted in Northern Italy 2009

Friday, July 16, 2010

12 June – South down the west coast of Italy

After a compulsory stop at a beautiful sandy beach for a swim we continue along the winding coastal road above the bluffs. Hugging the inner bank and proceeding with caution as the outer edge is cracking away, slowly subsiding into deep gullies below. At one slip near a village we encounter a steel bridge placed at right angles to span the gap with just enough room for Victory to scrape through. We cause a traffic jam at either end with cars forced to back up as we inch past.
From here we turn inland climbing the hill up through old olive grove country with the thick, gnarled and twisted trunks growing from the rough ground and where time has stood still here for generations.
Higher up in the mountains near Futani, just before dark, there’s a small-refrigerated van parked in the middle of the road selling delicatessen goods. Amazed we pull up alongside and purchase some ham, salami and mozzarella cheese chatting to the friendly locals who advise us of a place down the road to park for the night.
However, we miss the given spot arriving instead down a steep driveway pulling up right in front of a local farmer’s house. With a surprised face he comes out to meet us and after some discussion, with neither side understanding the other, he agrees we can stay the night so we manoeuvre the camper to a semi even keel and enjoy our salami with mozzarella, sweet tomatoes and olives for dinner before calling it a day.

13 June – Maratea Port

Awoken at 6.30am by the farmer’s tractor, we’re on the go early thankful to leave the narrow back roads behind. We travel south along the western side of the Basilicta Mountains that recede in layers back into a hazy blue sky. Eventually re-emerging back at the coast.
In the Maratea region we venture into one of many little villages scattered around the coastal hills where unkempt and derelict houses show evidence of impoverished times. Then with Victory in low gear we continue up the mountain behind the town. She climbs the steep road, hair pinning its way up around vertical bluffs until we ascend into the mists at the top. Here we catch glimpses of the enormous, marble Christ, arms akimbo, dominating the peak looking towards the mountains of the interior. As we walk up towards the giant statue, the clouds swirl around his head like misty vales. Within half an hour the skies are clearing, like opening a window with a view out to the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Snaking back down the viaducts we have our lunch at the port filled mostly with cruse boasts waiting for the short tourist season that hasn’t yet arrived.
Here we sketch the quaint houses around the rustic square. It’s 6pm by the time we pack up and drive to our next camp spot at Praia a Mare.
The coast here is renowned for its beaches and swimming. We take advantage enjoying a couple of refreshing swims a day in the clear, turquoise waters.

Inland overlooking the sea near Paola is the 6th century San Francesco Sanctuary. Here an old refuge is carved into the underground rock. We enter down narrow stairs to a warren of small rooms. At the bottom is a little church opening out to a stream that gently cascades down in little waterfalls; A very tranquil spot.
Alongside the new church in total contrast, built above ground, is a grand modern construction, open and spacious, with large stain glass windows and light wooden panelling.
The roadside here is ablaze with pink and white oleander and the land opens up into a lush, fertile valley of citrus and market gardens. A farmer and his dog herd curly horned goats along the berm where they eat the dry offerings reaching up into the trees to munch the greenery.
The day ends at the little seaside town of Pizzo where we meander down the lanes lined with shops and houses leading to the main piazza. Here we discover a phone shop that sells the brand of internet key we have and hope they can solve our connection problems. As they don’t have they ability to fix it, the owner Roberto offers to drive us to the larger city of Vibo Valentia in the morning, about a 20-minute drive, which we thankfully accept.
We spend the evening with the locals watching Paraguay playing Italy for the World Cup Football on a large TV screen in the square. Sitting at a table with a beer and pizza for dinner we take in the atmosphere. Not very jubilant Italians, as the end result is not quite what was wanted with a draw.

In the morning Roberto takes us into the provincial capital of Calabria in his little zippy little car. Just as well as Victory wouldn’t have handled the narrow congested streets where parking is difficult even for the small car. But we’re relieved to now have the internet connection working.
The rest of the day is spent painting in the square with curious locals looking on, mostly older men, who seem to have all the time in the world to sit around chatting. One man Franco owns a B&B here and shows us his wonderful home above the bay. Sitting on his deck we enjoy a limoncello with the splendid view of the coast stretched out before us.

‘Andiamo’ (‘Let’s go’) they say in Italy, so we are back on the motorway travelling down to the toe of Italy for the ferry to Sicily. The many tunnels and bridges make light work for Victory as we cross some wild and extreme landscapes with steep mountains torn apart by wide, dry riverbeds dropping to the sea.

At Villa San Giovanni we buy a return ferry ticket for 70 Euros (NZ$140) and board the ferry for the 20-minute crossing to the port of Messina.

17 June - Sicily

From Messina we take the southwest route along the coast past gravel beaches, little fishing boats pulled up on shore and a few sun seekers basking in the midday heat. Some of the local fishermen sell their catch direct to the public from their boats.
The skies are clear after the dust storms from Africa that have clouded the horizon over the past few days, leaving cars and everything else covered in a thick layer of grime. A sea breeze keeps us cool as we stop for a quick sketch sitting on the seawall looking past the boats to the cliff top castle.

We drive along the switch back roads above the castle through a hot dry land where the spiky cactus thrives and the only other creatures out in the sun, apart from us, are the beautiful emerald green patterned lizards baking on the rocks and concrete walls. At the top we take in the hazy vistas disappearing in the distance and visit the cool haven of the 16th century church with its offering of bread in a basket at the door.

Dana, now a master of the narrow hill roads is very brave tackling the zigzag lanes that we encounter up to the old medieval ruins of a fortress behind Taormina with rock walls one side and sheer drops on the other. But the dizzy panoramas out along the coast and to the ever-present smoking volcano of Mount Etna behind are worth the climb. Taormina is a village perched 200 meters up on the side of the mountain. There is a cable car to take tourists to and from the beaches below as the scant parking space available at the top is very expensive. The town has a brutal history dating from the 8th century BC occupied by Arabs, Normans, Romans and Greeks who have fought over it during the ages leaving behind their mark. There is the Roman theatre from 3rd Century BC, aqueducts, Roman baths and cathedrals. Today it’s a tourist town with the narrow streets adorned with bright coloured umbrellas and stores festooned with wares to tempt the passersby. Flowers spill down from baskets. In the piazza artists sit at work over their canvases surrounded by the old historical buildings.

It’s getting dark and we head for an Agriturismo for the night driving inland around Etna toward Passopisciaro. We ask directions from a local man on the roadside only to find that the owner is away. He phones a friend who has also has a vineyard and campground close by then escorts us there, ringing the bell at the large iron gates, which slide open for us to enter. We’re delighted to see a pool and have a quick swim before bed at 11pm.

18 June – Mount Etna

After an early morning swim and breakfast we set off for Mount Etna with a voucher from the camp entitling us a 12 Euro discount each.
Etna is the most renowned active volcano in Europe at 3,300 metres. We drive up to 1810 metres in Victory. This area was totally wiped out by lava flows in the 2002 eruption completely obliterating the northern side of the mountain and flowing down into the villages below.
Here we join around 20 other tourists on the four-wheel drive Unimog ascending to 2,900 metres through vast lava flows and strewn rocks. Up past huge chasms of vents opened up in 2002 to a black sand plateau at the top where we explore the lunar landscape and take in the vistas down the steep mountainsides to the valleys below. From here you can hike with a guide for the last 4-hour ascent to the smoking crater at the summit. Instead we take the easy option descending to the vents below, walking down scree slopes into the base of the craters with their coloured lava from black through to red and yellow.
Further down the mountain we walk through clumps of wild flowers and tussocks, the first inhabitants of this wilderness, past large white skeletons of trees that are somehow still standing defiant against the ravages that have beset them, very picturesque in the black landscape despite the horrific forces that created it all.
Back at camp Nino, the kind man who directed us here, is keen to take us to a wine tasting evening and picks up in his little 4x4 red Fiat Panda that has done around 240,000kms. We pile in and with a hiss and a roar we’re on our way. Alas not far down the road the little car conks out on a hill and it’s all to the rescue. With the three of us pushing from behind Nino manoeuvres the car into a nearby gateway. He calls one of his many friends and we’re all duly delivered to town. Here we meet locals and visitors sampling the wines made on the estate where Nino works along with plenty of bruschetta and other delicious finger food.
I decline the last offering of a grappa with a marinated cherry. Although it looks pretty, it has too strong a kick for me at this hour.

The owner of Etna Wines where we are staying takes us on a guided tour of his museum in the main large stone building. There is a 15th century wine press along with huge wooden storage barrels, each one approximately 3 metres in diameter. There is an old olive grinding stone sitting on a huge round table that was once turned by donkeys to extract the oil. The oil was drained off into a pit half filled with water to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom while the pure oil floated on top. The old relics tell a story of times past where life wasn’t easy and hard repetitive toil filled the day.

My task is to complete two paintings in oil, one of Mount Etna and the other of the little stone buildings and olive groves on site before being collected by Nino at 3.30pm. His little car now restored back to working order, takes us on a sightseeing tour to the little port of Acireale. It is set on a lava terrace that drops sheer to the sea with high pillars of stone stepping out into the blue waters of the bay. Behind a large breakwater we see the deep sea fishing boats being unloaded. Many swordfish are hauled up by their tails with a pulley from the bowels of a boat, weighed then loaded into the back of a waiting truck. On deck a man is busy gutting larger fish that look like tuna. It made me feel a little sad to see these beautiful creatures caught in such vast numbers, but I guess it has been their way of life for generations.
We finish the day with a seafood pasta dinner at Mangiato Riposto, a small sea hamlet on the Calabrian Coast. Overlooking the bay, smaller fishing boats are returning after their day’s catch. They are rowed up the channel between the rocks by fishermen standing in the middle using long oars.

Nino persuades us to stay another day to witness the age-old practice of ricotta cheese making in the traditional way.
His little car, a Fiat Panda is amazing. He slips it into four-wheel drive to take us up the rugged, steep tracks on the other side of the mountain.
We arrive to see around 30 goats being herded into a shed. The sound of their bells rings across the valley. The farmer’s son squats by a small opening in a dark little alcove. Each goat stops there just long enough to be milked before escaping back to the spartan, rough hillside paddock outside. Outside huge thistles grow everywhere amongst the rocks along with wild oreganum that we pick. The scent permeates the air.
We drive back down to the main shed to see the cheese making process. The farmer is busy over a large vat of milk he churns by hand using a wooden whisk made from a tree branch. The smaller twigs at the end are bent over to form a beater. Within a short time the goat and sheep milk has turned into a soft slightly sweet white junket called ‘quilata’.
With more vigorous beating this separates into curds and whey. The farmer, almost disappearing into the vat headfirst, gathers up great armfuls - a backbreaking manoeuvre. He places the curds into a colander for draining with a sprinkling of peppercorns between each layer.
We sample the curds or ‘tuma’ as it is served onto a plate of broken bread to absorb the moisture. It has a very mild flavour, more like cottage cheese in texture.
The whey drained from the curds into a second vat is placed on an open fire and heated till near boiling to form the third and final cheese called Ricotta. The little room is hot from the fire and hazy with swirls of smoke escaping through the door. We’re offered a handful of the still warm cheese, squeezing out the excess water till it forms a soft ball and sample the rather bland result accompanied by a glass of wine.
After all the hard work is done the remaining logs from the fire are carried outside and extinguished. The ashes are placed in a bucket with a lid, ready to start the process over again the following morning. We are shown the larder of round mature cheeses in a shed. A wedge is cut of for us to sample, a lot tastier than the fresh. It was a great experience although a rather odd and different breakfast for us all!
In the afternoon Nino takes us to the Gole dell Alcantara a spectacular deep gorge where the height of the rock is emphasised by the narrow passage through which the Alcantara river flows fed by a mountain spring. We walk along the track at the top through large prickly pear trees that grow everywhere around here.
High on the bluff ahead of us in the little town of Castigilone di Sicilia an impressive castle grows from the rock, its walls glowing in the last of the sun.

On another excursion Nino takes us out in the country around the back of Etna towards Randazzo. We stop at a restaurant specialising in ‘castrato’ lamb. Starting with 3 plates of antipasto filled with all sorts of delicacies including ham, salami, marinated zucchinis and eggplant, pickled onions, olives, little omelettes etc, etc. This is almost a meal in itself but then comes a large plate of roasted lamb chops, chips and salad accompanied by a couple of Nino’s lovely bottles of wine. I felt it was time for a siesta but instead we drive on through farmlands where sheep and cattle graze, leaving the main road once again. Nino sings lovely Italian songs as we bump along the stony, rutted track with ‘Little Panda” in four-wheel drive. He is taking us up to see some lakes where the flamingos are supposed to be at certain times of the year. Alas veils of mist and rain come in with the unrelenting cold wind which seems so strange after all the hot sunny days. But around Etna anything is possible and probably there will be more snow on top in the morning. We get brief glimpses of the Largo di Cartdana before the clouds block our view, a little disappointing, especially for Nino who has brought us to see the splendid vista. We return to the civilisation of the hillside towns calling into Randazzo 760 metres above sea level. Here we zip up our jackets against the cold and go to explore. The medieval town was built at the beginning of the 13th century using black lava stone creating a cold austere feeling in the dull evening light. We’re dropped back at 9.30pm and for once get a well-deserved early night. Dana and I give Nino a painting each to say thanks for all he has done for us and we say our fond farewells promising to keep in touch.
Nino Franco has an interesting accent when he speaks English - a mix of Australian and Italian as he spent a number of years working in Australia in his youth, returning home to Sicily to look after his ailing parents.

22nd June - Catania

Thankfully the Etna wind that whipped around the hills yesterday has died down and the temperature is cooler as once again we get the camper shipshape and move on, our host refusing payment for our last night’s accommodation.
Taking the motorway we continue south to Catania, Sicily’s second largest city. In the main piazza the 17th century buildings and churches built from the bountiful lava stone are embellished around the edges with white sandstone giving a much lighter appearance. 13 different cultures have lived here over the past 2000 years leaving a fusion of rich history - a dynasty that has stretched from the 8th century BC.
It has been destroyed 9 times by earthquakes and eruptions rising each time from the ashes. Some of the relics have survived from this period, including the ruins of the 2nd century Greek theatre and the larger Roman Amphitheatre. The castle ‘Castello Ursino’ built in the 17th century houses sculptures and vases that date from a remarkable 600 BC.

23rd June - Siracusa

The catastrophic earthquake of 1693 had drastic consequences for all eastern Sicily, flattening most villages. It was an immense disaster taking about 100,000 lives and resulting in most of the towns being rebuilt in the Baroque style.

The island of Ortygia, part of Siracusa, is only 1 x 1½ kms in diameter and was colonized in the 8th century BC with over 2700 years of history. It has been inhabited by the indigenous people since the 14th century BC. It became a powerful fortress where different cultures came together merging to produce unique monuments, temples and churches.
We cross to the island passing the old port linked to the mainland by a short bridge over the marina where the little boats are moored alongside the large cruse ship. All its passengers are hurrying back before sailing.
The bridge leads into a web of narrow streets in the old town that merge at the tip where the white almost Spanish Castello is built.
The island is a fantastic and lively spot. We see ladies dressed in the height of fashion wobbling down the cobbled streets in their high heels beside dapper men in suits on their way to a wedding at the grand cathedral.
The camera clicks off numerous shots of sunlit buildings with warm shadows reaching down under flower-hung balconies. The elaborate buttresses that support these are adorned with many carved stone faces grinning down at us from above.

Siracusa Archaeological Museum and Park

The museum houses artefacts dating from the prehistoric period to the time of the ancient Greek colonies. This is combined with the Neapolis Archaeological Park with a Roman Amphitheatre dating back to 3rd and 4th century AD. It is one of the largest in Italy where the fights between the gladiators and animals have now been replaced by music concerts.
It’s a stinking hot day and there is no respite from the sun except to shelter for a short time in the shade of catacombs and caves dug out of the cliff behind the theatre. There’s even one complete with internal waterfall. The largest cave is 45 metres deep and material used to build the city of Siracusa was taken from here.
In 415 BC Siracusa’s growing influence troubled Athens and a fleet of 134 boats were dispatched to take the town. The boats were destroyed. Those who weren’t slaughtered were imprisoned in the quarries as slaves to extract the rock, working and living there until their death. Another grotto called the Ear of Dionysius is massive - 65 metres long and 23 metres high in an S shape. The tyrant Dionysius locked up political prisoners here exploiting the remarkable acoustics to eavesdrop on their conversations from an opening in the upper part of the cave.
A lot of the local water here is desalinated and I’m hard pushed to drink it especially on a hot day when it’s warm. I take great delight in an ice cold bottle brought from a dispenser on my return at 1pm.

At Noto 3 kms inland we camp for the night. The lady who runs the camp drops us off in town in her van. We walk up past the fruit stalls and souvenir shops where everyone is glued to their TVs watching the soccer with Italy losing to Slovenia putting them out of the contest. The tall and elegant cathedrals are of golden sandstone in the typical Baroque style, one gaining world attention when the dome collapsed in 1996. The inside is still supported by scaffolding. There seem to be few tourists around. When we visit a local art exhibition we are offered chocolate gateau and cold tea. During the hour or so we’re there, no one else comes in. Quite sad really.
We call the owner of the camp to come and collect us. We are pleased she made the offer as it is now around 7pm and it’s been a long day.

25th June

The dry straw grass and prickly pear are strewn through the rocky countryside interspersed with pockets of agriculture. Here cherry tomatoes grow hanging in long red bunches on the vines along with rows of red orange citrus trees which seem out of season.
We arrive at the pretty little Spanish fishing hamlet of Marzamemi on the coast. Colourful boats are tied up along the pier next to a restaurant and café with shady umbrellas. Square stone buildings encircle the beautiful main piazza and the church with two arched bell towers is silhouetted against a blue sky. Just off shore an island is dominated by a luminous red building, owned by an Italian writer, surrounded by green palms, sparkling like a jewel across the blue water.
On the southernmost tip of Sicily at the seaside town of Portopalo we park on the dockside for lunch looking across to the large gashed boats, long abandoned in the shallow waters lying on their sides. The smaller rowboats are also showing their age with paint and old ropes worn by the years of use. Along the pier the deep sea boats have unloaded their catch selling fresh fish of all shapes and sizes including trays of prawns. I try to buy a kilo but they only sell bulk at 15 Euros a tray. A good price but far too many for us.

Leaving the shore we head inland towards Ragusa driving along country lanes lined with stonewalls stopping for the night at a ‘farm stay’ an organic Agriturismo. Here they grown olives and carob trees with the large pods or beans hanging in great bunches. There is also a menagerie of animals to greet us - cats, dogs, a donkey heavily in foal and a horse looking over the stable door.
We park at the back of the stables alongside a walled courtyard where we have the use of a toilet and shower for free. Before it gets too dark I do a sketch of the inner courtyard buildings with the colourful flowers growing from the rocky garden.

Next morning I complete this painting and start another of the grand stucco house from below, sitting by the large veggie garden in the shade of the carob tree. At 3pm we pack up and go down to the coast at Pozzallo for a swim in the warm water then lie on the sandy beach to dry off.
We drive on to the town of Scicli with a population of 25,000 people set into the rocky limestone hills. On the cliff tops above is a long abandoned monastery along one ridge and on the other the ruins of an old church plus several little chapels built into the bluffs. We climb up the steps between the houses, past carob trees growing from the dry rocky ground until we reach the ruins. Looking down over the walls we take in the great vistas over tiled rooftops aglow in the last rays of the sun with the sound of music coming up from the square below.
Darkness descends across the land as we make our way back to the farm stay with the full moon rises in a red ball. Daria, the Agriturismo owner, has invited us to join in the festivities to celebrate the full moon. People have come to share food, wine and music. It was around midnight when I collapse into bed falling to sleep with the sound of the guitar still playing.

27th June

After a painting session, we move on to Ragusa another medieval town rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake. It is a tangle of houses stacked one above the other. From the base of the town where we park we walk up the stonewalled little alleyways to the domes and spires above. The tall sandstone cathedral of San Giorgio stands resplendent with its three stories of pillars rising up on either side of the grandiose door and its large blue tiled dome sparkling behind. We sample new flavours of gelato under the shade of the umbrellas. Mine is a very tasty fig and carob.

Climbing inland onto a high stony plateau we arrive at the city of Caltagirone rebuilt on the summits of three hills. Its wealth and history comes from the making of ceramics. We climb the 150 steps to the church of ‘Santa Maria del Monte’. The way up is flanked by houses and ceramic shops full to brimming with beautifully decorated and brightly glazed pots, bowls and platters. Each level of steps is faced with majolica tiles.
We watch a man skilfully sculpting a model of a clothed figure with a cape falling in folds around him. He jokes about charging us 50 Euros each to take a photo.

28th June

Next morning we visit the nearby 40 roomed Villa Romana, 5 kms out of Enna, dating from the 4 century BC. It was used up until the 12th century when it was covered by a landslide protecting it until its discovery and excavation in the 1950s. It is a true testament to the opulent Roman times in Sicily.
The beautiful mosaic floors are now protected from the elements by a glasshouse like structure which you wander through on raised balconies looking down over the tiles. These mosaics portray animal scenes with a Roman-African influence, a chariot race, hunting scenes with shield bearing men pitched against wild tigers, elephants and rhinos, Roman girls clad in bikinis playing sport, boats and sea creatures, serpents and much more, all laid out using tiny square tiles. Truly amazing the amount of work in constructing such intricate designs so long ago and to be still in place today. In the surrounding estate, animals were imported from Africa to be used in Rome and other cities for entertainment in the circus and amphitheatres.

Enna sits 143 metres above sea level surrounded by golden ochre rolling hills from which the grain is harvested to feed the nation. We drive up her narrow streets parking near the top at Castello di Lombardia built by Frederick II in 1160 on an imposing rocky spur. Surrounded by high stone walls from which a lofty tower rises. We enter the gate leading into 3 large inner sun baked courtyards. Some musicians are playing flutes and guitars under the shade of the trees adding to the ambiance of the setting. We ascend the internal tower staircase to the crenulations at the top for spectacular views out over the rolling countryside but are unable to see Etna hidden in the hazy distance. Down in the main square of the town a gang of boys while away the day playing soccer in a small square next to the 13th century church.
We have our lunch at the camper watched over by women from balconies above and the men sitting on the park benches. It would seem not a lot happens around here.
In the countryside the wheat has been harvested leaving patterns like combed hair through the golden fields. This contrasts with dark ploughed volcanic fields divided by a mane of tall flower heads that bend in the breeze in the late evening sun, looking like a giant patchwork quilt. The little stone buildings stand dark and silhouetted between the hazy sky and golden fields interspersed by belts of fruit trees and olives, the only green in an ochre sea.
We stop for the night in a large car park at Caltanissetta just west of Enna, once the capital for the extraction of sulphur providing 4/5ths of the world’s production until competition from America led to the closure of the mines.

29th June

Heading west towards the coast we make a short detour at Aragona to see the Nature Reserve of Macalube. Here the gray hard, cracked clay has vents where methane gas escapes from the bowels of the earth. These form small cones in the mud where they bubble away, if you’re lucky enough to see it as it’s all very miniscule. Totally unremarkable to us on this hot day with only one other car of tourists making the effort to walk the track to see this miracle.
Of more interest are the men who have blocked the road with their trucks while they load hay bales using a mechanical arm to lift them from the tractor to the stack piled high on the back of the truck until they look totally unstable. This is then covered by a green net and tied with ropes. Eventually the two trucks part with their loads and the tractor returns to the field to replenish his stock for a repeat performance.
Along the same stretch we encounter a herd of sheep and Maltese goats some sporting huge curling horns. Their fine white coats of hair and long curling ears make them look quite comical. Around their necks bells ring merrily as they graze on the leftover stubble after bailing. A little puppy seeks the shade under their bellies and as they move along so does he.
We arrive at the coastal city of Agrigento with many grand viaducts conveying the traffic across the gullies and into the congested streets above. We skirt the city heading out past the plantations of eucalyptus trees to the Valley of Temples.
Here set amongst the age old almond and olive trees the Greek temples sit built in the 5th and 6th centuries BC to celebrate their gods. We set forth in the midday heat, the only ones in sunhats, winding our way down and around the golden sandstone temples glowing in the sun, thankful for the slight breeze that stirs the hot air. Climbing in and around the giant pillars that have collapsed to the ground over the years, we marvel at those that have defied the test of time to remain standing high above us against the never ending blue sky. The Temple of Concord has survived in tact due to its transformation into a Christian basilica in 597AD that preserved its structure. The total area is 19,758 square metres with 6 columns across the front and 11 down each side, set on a base of four steps rising to a height of 6.75 metres. It is a magnificent sight.
After about 3 ½ hours and in danger of heat stroke we venture into the cooler museum. I was blown away by the dates of the finds from various tombs and places around the district going back to 6,000 BC! It houses an amazing array of objects from carved sarcophaguses, vases and utility items to helmets, swords and armoury. It is such a great museum we are the last to leave before closing time.,

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

28 May – Milano, Italy

We have a stone chip mended in our windscreen which is executed with surgical precision, a silver medical bag and gloved attendant carrying out the successful operation, costing 85 Euros for his trouble.
The motorway to Milano was slow going with heavy traffic but eventually with aid of Thomas, our GPS, taking us along cobbled streets, fighting for space with the trolley busses we reach our destination parking within 300 metres of the Pizza del Duomo, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral. The cathedral took 5 centuries to complete from 1386 to 1813, the marble for which was barged down via a specially built canal from quarries near Lake Maggiore. Some 3500 statues adorn the exterior with little cherub faces, crucified christens and condemned men bursting forth from the edifice. The massive, brass doors, green with age apart from the areas polished the multitude of hands touching the leg of a saint or the hand of Christ. Fruit, flowers and grape vines entwined with serpents, form the frames around the doors and columns. Tall ornate towers pierce the sky above and stained glass windows embellish the whole structure. It was a beauty to behold with the newly cleaned, golden marble aglow in the last of the sunlight. It was after seven when Thomas guided us out of town once again competing with the traffic coming at us from all angles as we head for Pavia where we spend the night.

29 May - Pavia Monastery

In the early morning we visit the old Pavia monastery commissioned by the Duke of Milano in 1396, it was designed by the same architects and craftsmen that worked on the Milano Cathedral and has the same ornate appearance both inside and out making it one of the most extravagant in Europe. We caught the tail-end of an Italian tour group lead by one of the monks released from his vow of silence as they are only permitted to talk for 4 hours a week. The beautiful, rich painted ceilings, sculptures and carvings with no expenses spared were in contrast to the monks’ stark rooms. Their meals where served through little wooden hatches and a small courtyard links them to their neighbour. The shop, the last place visited before exit was stocked with honey, chocolate, liquor and souvenirs, a main source of income apart from donations.
Around this area is flat agricultural land where rice grows in large, flooded paddy fields, an unexpected sight in northern Italy’s hot climate.
Next stop is Mantova, the scene of Verdies’ Rigoletto and where some of Italy’s richest and most powerful families ruled for 3 centuries. We wander into town at dusk stopping to paint and have a coffee in the main palazzo taking in the buzz of it all.

30 May

Mondena, the home of Pavarotti, is a beautiful and alive city. The area is linked to the car industry with such names as Ferrari, Bamborghini and Maseroti manufactured around here. In the Piazza Grando the old 12 centaury, white marble Duomo is one of the finest of the Romanesque period. Elegant arches and balconies adorn the exterior with the pillars held up by fierce-looking lions. Inside is very dark and it takes a while for my eyes to adjust before I can see the red brick interior with the high vaulted ceilings held up by enormous columns. Frescoes depicting the last super and other biblical stories adorn the walls, but the most striking feature is the thin marble widows, through which the light shines, glowing with the colours and patterns of the marble in the dim light.
Spanning out from the piazza is a narrow network of streets and arcades. Bright coloured buildings across which shadows and light playing and numerous awnings stretch out in the sun, each lane offers its own special charm.
I would love to get lost here for a few days with my paints but as it was already seven and we headed back to the camper, gelato in hand. We park for the night on a hilltop just out of town by a restaurant in an old converted castle with views out across the rolling hills and farms.

31 May – 1 June Bangi di Lucca

Thomas leads us on a bit of a wild goose chase before he gets his bearings and we head down over the winding Garfagnana Mountains, pocketed with snow, and through which we swing and turn for the best part of the day. Coming down into our old stomping ground in the beautiful spa town of Bungi di Lucca where we spent so much time two years earlier. We visit old friends and spend a couple of nights parked on the hillside high up the valley towards Piegaio Alto where we rented a house on our last visit. Our friend Daniel cooks us a wonderful meal with fresh vegetables picked from his garden and we spend the evening catching up over a glass of wine.
The next morning we are treated to fresh eggs from his girls and go exploring the area in his car, a little easier than our camper to get about in. We visit the lovely Tuscan homes where he tends the gardens and the old blacksmith who runs his business from the base of an old stone building. All the old machinery for his trade is run by water that flows down from the hills above, like stepping back in time. A lovely couple of days where time has no meaning and we find it’s after 1am before we make it back down to the camper for the night.

2 June - Green Gold

Leaving our spot in the mountains we head down the west coast, looking into the possibility of going to the island of Elba, but the cost of 40 Euros each, plus bus fairs to get around the Island we decide it’s too much and keep going.
That night we end up at Valpiana in Southern Tuscany on an olive farm run for 4 generations by the family of Stanghellini, who have won medals for producing some of Italy’s finest olive oil. We are shown the large press where the oil is extracted from the olives, all very modern alongside the old machinery his father used before him. After sampling we buy a bottle of the green gold for our salads then explore the olive groves to see the 1000-year-old trees.

3 June - Massa to Etruscan Tombs

Massa Marittima, a town perched on top of the metal bearing hill from which lead, copper and silver ores have been extracted over the years. A mining town since the Etruscan times with a Duomo dating from the 13th century constructed of white sandstone pitted with age and standing majestic, high above the piazza on a skirt of broad, white steps.
Further on up the hill is the spa town of Saturnia where the hot sulphur water cascades down over lime boulders creating bathing holes to sit in where it’s free to lie in the pools and let the hot waters sooth your mind and body.
On a ridge high above the valley we come to Sovana where in the soft limestone cliffs are many Etruscan tombs dating from 400BC. We go exploring walking around the tombs and caves, complete with millipedes, which you can entre. You don’t dare stray from the tracks as huge caverns pot-mark the landscape disguised with ferns and grasses.

4 June - Sorano

Sorano is a medieval town perched high on the cliffs overlooking the deep gorge and the surrounding ridges of hills beyond. In town sitting on one of the walls a Japanese man is busy sketching the maze of rooftops that stretch up to the Rocca at the top, a fantastic rendition of the complicated scene. All around this area is strewn with Etruscan caves and we explore some more, set along a cliff face where people have lived for hundreds of years leaving behind evidence of their way of life from the pigeon holes, a main source of food to the oven pits where they did their cooking. There was also the ruin of an old church and the city walls left by later generations on the knoll above.
On the way south we stop at Monetfiascoe, on the hill of a volcanic crater where we climb up to the 17th Century Santa Margherita Cathedral set on a huge octagonal base and capped with a large white dome seen high above the town, the 3rd largest in Italy. At the top is the park with old castle ruins and in the refreshing cool shade of the large pines we survey the view down over Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic crater in Europe.
Vitorchiano, just north of Rome, is our stopping place for the night with a splendid view across the deep gorge to the town on the other side that grows up from the rock face, capped with the towers and church steeples aglow in the last of the sun. We sit outside and have dinner with no one else around and I do a sketch before bed.

5 June – First painting – Vitorchiano

I’m itching to get my oils out and start painting with such a grand subject in front of me, so after a quick explore of the town, which is also very paintable, I head back to the camper and make a start. 2½ hours later, hot and a little sun burnt, I’ve all but finished when the girls return from painting in the town.
We have lunch before moving on to Orte another rustic village with its facades all cracked and in bad need of maintenance but this is all part of the charm. Stopping at the top for a gelato we sit overlooking some of the old Roman ruins below. Passing around the eastern side of Rome on the motorway we stop just south at Albino in a not so salubrious car park for the night.

6 June – Nemi

Making the most of the water supply we wash our clothes and hair with a group of fascinated Italians waiting for a bus watching our antics. On around the crater lake of Nemi we come to the little town by the same name perched high above the water. The town is famous for its strawberries grown on the steep slopes between the village and lake and where today they are celebrating with a harvest festival or ‘saga delle fragole’. With all the festivities we have a great time watching the parade of men with the flag throwing and the women dressed in traditional costumes, plenty of stalls, food and crafts and everywhere strawberries, even strawberry pizza! From here we drive south to Cassino staying the night parked just outside the gates of Montecassino monastery.

7 June - Montecassino

We awake in the morning to the sound of the abbey bells tolling at around 6.30am that has us up at a reasonable hour, time for a quick sketch before the gates open at 9am.
The Abbey has been reconstructed after suffering heavy bombing during WW2, taken and held by the Germans, with the allied forces, Poles, New Zealand and Italian troupes battling for 6 months to free it, with the cost of several thousand lives. The white stonewalls dazzling in the sun and graceful arches of the inner courtyard frame the vistas beyond. The abbey dominates the skyline surrounded by trees in a serene, peaceful setting, its motto being PAX, meaning piece.
Inside the large church the pillars and walls are adorned with mosaics of different coloured, inlayed marble, interspersed with frescoes. The intricate ceiling glitters with gold and coloured mosaic tiles and many carvings, with statues and cupids gaze down from above.
The extensive museum contains remnants of the old pillars and statues salvaged from the wreckage after the war. Galleries of renascence paintings including a Botticelli, a number of large, intricately bound, hand written testaments, jewel incrusted papal mitres, vestments, jewellery, beautiful vases and artefacts some dating from 600BC. And to finish we saw a movie of the horrific bombing that saw the destruction of the original abbey.

Taking the motorway to save time we head to Pompei, just south of Naples. Green pastoral valleys and wooded hillsides give way to the high rocky mountains rising up in all directions. There’s a strong breeze that stirs the air helping to alleviate the heat. Driving through Pompei, there seems to be no road rules and ciaos reins with no one giving away at intersections. We find a campground opposite the excavated village which has now closed for the night. We take a look around the stalls selling souvenirs, jewellery and hats and I buy a red coral necklace. At the information centre we discover free internet access and read our emails before they close their doors for the night.

8 June – Pompei

The day starts with a refreshing shower before tackling the old ruins. Jill stays at the camp to catch up with washing etc as she has been before. Dana and I set forth opting to take advantage of the complementary bikes to get around a little quicker! Our guide map, backpack and camera stored in our carrier basket in front and wearing our helmets we were on our way, bumping along the cobblestones, up and down hills and wobbling around other sightseers in our way. Locking our bikes in the stands along the way we walk into the centre to see the various sights. Pompei had a population of around 20,000 and encompassed an area of 66ha of which 46 have been excavated. The sudden eruption on the 24th August 79AD buried the town under ash and rock with the loss of 2000 lives. It wasn’t until the16th century it was rediscovered with evacuation starting in 1748 and still continuing today, uncovering the ancient city with its extraordinary architecture, sculptures, paintings and mosaics all still in tact. Such as the bathhouse from 1st Century BC, takeaway bars, temples and the large amphitheatre (70BC), one of the oldest and best preserved in existence and still in use today. Streets and streets of houses just as they were left and the people buried where they lay in the ash in twisted contorted poses, frozen in time with flesh, teeth and nails and in parts the bones showing underneath, all a little gruesome. We were there for 4½ hours and still didn’t see it all it is so extensive.
Hot and exhausted by the time we arrived back at the camper, my feet covered in the fine ash dust and a few new bruises from the uncomfortable seat but after a cold shower we’re on our way.
Taking the road south towards the Amalfi Coast we stop at the little town of Vietri at the southern end, home of the ceramics. Warm friendly people welcomed us, one old lady, her grey hair tied in a bun at the back, almost giving us a guided tour of the town. We were treated with samples of Limóncello and other delights from the area and locals sitting around the square chatted as we sketched from the high advantage point looking down along the Coast. We replenish our drink bottles from the ice cold fountain fed by the underground spring before continue over the hill to park on the dockside at Salerno. Assured of a tranquil night, which alas wasn’t the case, as the trucks kept toing and frowing from the ferries all night but as it was free parking who could complain.

9 June - Amalfi Coast

Up early to catch the first ferry from the Port of Salerno at the south-eastern end along the coast to the town of Positano the last town on the peninsula. It’s another beautiful day with a nice sea breeze and we cruise along sitting on the top deck with only around a dozen people onboard. Steep craggy cliffs rise up sheer from the sea; the little hamlets are nestled in pockets with vineyards, terraced olives and citrus groves. Houses sit atop rocky bluffs with steep steps winding down to the shore and beyond the layers of the Lattari Mountains step back into the blue hazy yonder. We call into the little town of Amalfi to allow people on and off, the only stop on the 70 minute trip. Positano greets us like a jewel in the crown, the green and yellow mosaic dome of the church sparkling in the sun and the homes rising vertically one on top of the other up the valley behind in soft shades of pastel. We climb up through the maze of little boutique shops and galleries to the top looking for the best view to paint.
Back down at the promenade we see a couple of artist at work who tell us of a great restaurant around the coast run by one of their friends with a sandy swimming beach. It’s a bit of a hot walk but the cool beer revives me and sitting under the shade of the portico we dinned like queens on a special surprise meal served up the owner. One dish of fresh anchovies, a speciality of the area, a second a seafood mix, octopus tentacles, scallops, cockles etc. and the third a tuna dish with eggplant, marinated peppers, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and lettuce, all very delicious. After this we are allowed to laze on the deck chairs under the umbrellas, compliments of the establishment, and spend the afternoon jumping in and out of the water as we pleased: a slice of heaven! It was around 6pm when we walked back to the town and our artist friends were putting the finishing touches to their paintings. We said out goodbyes before walking back up the hill to catch the bus along the coast to Amalfi, where we change to a smaller buss that takes us to the village of Ravello, on the cliffs above the sea. The villas spread along the terraces with the citrus and grapevines supported on a network of trellises, looking like a giant spider web reaching down the valley.
We miss the 9pm bus back so have a quick bite to eat while we wait for the next. It’s after 10 by the time we snake around the vertiginous cliffs, horns honking at each corner and the village lights twinkling around the bays as we return back to our camper at the port. The road sings here read ‘Give way to over taking traffic.

10 June

We return to the Coast for the day, as our bus pass is valid till 5.30pm. Boarding the 10am bus, packed like sardines we swaying in unison back around the bays until we gain breathing room when a few passengers escape to their chosen resorts and we secure a seat. An hour later were back in the cute little town of Amalfi set in the valley between the mountains, the little shops with displays of hot chillies strung out in scarlet bunches alongside giant lemons the size of footballs, all very colourful. The 9th century cathedral dominates the piazza set atop a tall flight of steps with a mosaic façade of creams and browns, so impressive. The inside is bedecked with flowers ready for a wedding. The bride arrives and ascends the stairs in her white gown and long train held up by the little flower girls.
We visit the paper museum behind the town, once a thriving industry here with over 20 mills producing paper using the pure mountain water and pulp made from recycled clothing, the product from which is still used by the Vatican today. I was allowed to make a piece of paper, first stirring the huge caldron of soup and dipping in the screen imprinted with their watermark with a sideways motion to pick up the thin layer of pulp. This was then reverted onto a barrel covered in a felt cloth to which the paper clung when removed for drying in the mountain air. Water powered hammers were used to shred the fibres and urea to bleach out the dyes and as time progressed more modern machines came into use cutting down production time. I brought a sheet of 350lb handmade paper on which I’ll paint a scene of Amalfi, the cost only 5 euros, plus I was given the piece I made. Just outside a string of burrows were being loaded with supplies before being lead further on up the hill, like a scene from a movie.
For us it was down the hill for a swim at the beach stopping along the way to stand over the vents in the road under which the cool mountain stream flowed sending up cool drafts of air.
On our return we stopped at a little fishing village of Cetara nestled on the shore with the coloured fishing boats in the marina and pulled up on the shore. We sit along the pier and paint the view looking back to the town with its elegant mosaic tower from the Viceroy period and the bridal parties coming down for photo shots along the dockside. After sitting for a couple of hours on the hard concrete it took awhile for the circulation to return.
We have dinner of local fish cuisine at the restaurant before catching the 9pm bus back to the camper still parked down at the port for the third and final night of broken sleep.

11 June – Campania – Cilento Coast

Campania is the area of the mozzarella cheese and we see the herds of buffalo grazing in the fields.
We have a much need cool off in the blue seas at Castellabate hosing ourselves down using the tap by the fishing boats hoping no one was looking. Thus refreshed and nourished we continued down the coast stopping for the night at the camp ground near the beach at Ogliastro Marina for 10 euros a night including power.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

22 May Metz

We leave our farm stay at ‘Les Grands Vents’ buying some of their homemade fromage along with fresh veggies from Thionville farmers’ market. A hot roasted pork hock was also purchased for lunch, the aroma of which fills the camper till we make short work of it with fresh baked bread and salad.
Metz, the capital of Lorraine on the Moselle River is a garden city with magnificent ochre sandstone buildings and cathedral, the nave of which is the tallest in France. Every inch adorned with sculptures and gargoyles and many wonderful stained glass windows some designed by the French artist Chagall. The smaller Protestant church looks very picturesque mid-stream of the river Moselle.

23 May Alsace on the Rhine

Alsace in the Rhine Valley with its medieval hamlets, ruined fortresses and castles is also home to the stork. Due to the decline in their numbers there’s a designated breeding area set aside at Soultz, where the birds nest on top of 6 metre poles. You can see the babies, 2 or 3 chicks to a nest with the parent keeping watch. The population is back to the numbers they once were in the 1960’s.

The beautiful town of Colmar was the pick for me, with its little crooked lanes and half-timbered, pastel coloured houses, looking like patchwork quilts, the plaster of which bulges from between dark planks of wood. All very picturesque, especially the area known as Little Venice on the River Lauch: old fishing cottages with shuttered windows, flower boxes and the high dark tiled roof tops linking them all together in a mismatch of angles. We have a waffle and coffee and paint the view along the riverbank savouring the moment. Tourists pass up and down in gondolas under the arched bridge, the dollhouse like, 4 story houses forming the backdrop: too good to be true. Colmar is also the home of Frederic Auguste Batholdi who sculptured the statue of Liberty in 1886 gifted by the French to the United States to commemorate the signing of the declaration of independence, and as a mark of friendship between the two countries.

That night we stop on a huge vineyard estate catering for the tourists with restaurant, hotel and its own distillery. I go exploring ending sitting on the hill opposite painting the view down across the farm buildings where the cows are being milked, out to the ridges of hills fading of into the distance in the glow of evening light. We have dinner at the restaurant, sitting on the terrace overlooking the valley, 5-courses of traditional Alsace food and in true French style taking over three hours to complete. It was after 11pm before we finished and paid the waiter who was a character that could have come straight from ‘Faulty Towers’ or ‘Allo Allo’.

25.May Switzerland

After croissants for breakfast we leave our nest at 556 metres up in the wooded hillside and cross the boarder into Switzerland at Basel with the temp already 27C. Staying off the motorways, so as not to incur the 30 franks for the vignette for the few days here. It’s slower travelling through the little towns as we wind our way down through the glacial valleys but the scenery is beautiful. Dark wooded houses with the long roof lines almost down to the ground, castles perched on the top of cliffs, domed church steeples and the cattle with the bells ringing; a happy sound. On the way to Bern we see a sign to Emmentale, home of the cheese with the famous mouse holes. The holes are created when the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation is unable to escape through the rind. Beside the factory a 1741 herdsman’s cottage built of the dark timber planks with wooden pegs holding the beams together and a roof constructed of tiny wooden shingles the size of fingers, even the spouting is a hollowed out log! Inside they demonstrate the making of a traditional cheese on the open fire.

At Bern we realise we don’t have any Swiss francs for the parking metres. The warden gives us a free parking ticket while we explore the old centre! The capital of Switzerland, Bern is considered one of the most impressive medieval cities with its sandstone buildings. Following the tourist map we walk around the places of interest, from the 16th century mechanical clock towers, to the old sandstone bridges, houses of parliament, cathedral and the bear pit, where they used to pit bears against each other. From the advantage point of the bridge high above the deep gorge where the waters from the snowy rivers gush, we take in the overall vista looking back across the city.

26 May - Swiss Alps

Despite the rain overnight we awake to a sunny day and head for Interlaken in the Swiss Alps. Passing turquoise lakes with yachts moored around the edge, castle towers and the sheer snow capped mountains a great spot to stop and paint. Then on up the narrow, tunnelled road pulling over to allow the faster vehicles to pass as we make our way up to Interlaken, surrounded by mountains.
Para-gliders soar gracefully over the mountains with screams of delight as they descend landing in the park with Mt Eiger, 3970mtrs and Mt Monch at 4197mtrs rising up behind. Down at the lake edge we have our lunch where once again Dana and Jill brave the icy water for a swim.
In the evening we drive higher up the valley between sheer cliffs rising up 800 metres on either side over which vales of waterfalls cascaded in mists to the valley floor. We complete a wonderful day painting the view with the sun setting on the snowy mountains.

27 May – Switzerland to Italy

Our plans to take the cable car up the mountain go astray. We were to ascend to Merren, a carless town on the cliff tops above where wild alpine flowers grow, then on to the top of Schitthorn at 3000metres with views out across to Mt Eiger and many other peaks as far as Germanys Black Forest.
This spectacular event wasn’t to be. Cloud had descended over night and we could see on the camera monitor that it was snowing at the top. Mists were rising up of the valley floor as we drive back down to Interlaken. With a lot of the mountain passes closed due to snow, cut down on our options and we decided to take the train through the mountain from Kandersteg to Goppenstein, a new experience for us all.
The train carriages appeare narrow and we wonder if we would fit but seeing the trucks roll off from the other end reassured us. Entering the tunnel into the pitch black is a little eerie and I was surprised with the jerky movement the camper didn’t roll forward. 20 minutes later we were out into the mists on the other side rolling down off the very steep mountainside through tunnels and tight S bends to Gampel on the valley floor below.
Victory has a steady steep climb over the mountain pass of Simpleton at 2005 metres a great challenge. We drive through the snow-clad mountains and at the top give Victory her well deserved rest while we go exploring. Playing in the snow, rolling down the hillside and marvelling at the little crocuses and gentians and other mountain flowers growing in such harsh conditions. We sketch the lone monastery sitting on a plateau near the top loving the fresh mountain air.
Following down the deep valley alongside the bolder river where we come to a little stone footbridge where we stop and cross with the smell of fresh herbs beneath our feet and know were back in Italy!

Monday, May 24, 2010

19 May Holland

We travel south through the vibrant green woodlands stopping at Doorn for lunch and a visit to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II grand estate. The Kaiser fled Germany after WW1 living here till 1941.
The next large estate we visit is the Kroller-Muller Museum, near Otterlo, close to the German boarder; over 5,000 hectares of heath and woodlands to get lost in.
The draw card for us was the 278 paintings by Vincent van Gogh in the gallery, for us a must see before leaving Holland.

20 May – Into Germany

We leave our quiet camping spot just south of Nijmegin in a faming area where we buy some large white asparagus for our lunch, which we have at Venlo, delicious.
Here in the market square we savour our iced coffee as we sketch the 15 Century gothic church.
Our second sketch of the day is the castle at the old coal-mining town Hoensbrock with its towers mirrored in the waters below where the geese and ducks forage for food.
We end the day at the Rurburg Lake in Germany and it's here Jill and Dana bravely take a brusque plunge before breakfast the next morning.

We follow the large Moselle River with its barges and boats plying up and down through the locks and the patchwork of vineyards that snake their way up the steep slopes till we come to Trier, Germany’s oldest town. We pass through the Porta Nigra the old Roman Gateway built 2nd AD century, amazing with its huge archways and warn weather-beaten sandstone rising up several stories high.
The town is full of old character buildings, many gables and rooflines in all directions, a builder’s nightmare, down to the little windows, statues and adornments from Tudor style to Flemish, truly a delight to see. It was also the birthplace of Karl Marx.
Continuing along the river's path on the boarder of Luxemburg with the little towns and church towers reflected in the calm waters, above which we stop for the night on the rolling hills of a dairy farm that specialises in cheeses.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

16 May – Cross to Calais – Holland and Victory’s WOF

At 8am we’re on our way to Calais via the Sea France ferries; thankful we’d made a booking in NZ before we left, as the ferries are in great demand with the airports closed. The crossing for the camper and three adults was only 30 Euros! 1½ hours later we are driving off at Calais with a sense of ‘de ja vu’. The familiar flat farmlands and large Belgium blue cattle, clusters of buildings with orange roof tiles and the endless, immense skies.

We stop at Ypres, located in the Flemish province of West Flanders. During the 1st World War Ypres was the centre of some intense battles between Germany and the Allied forces. 4 years of fighting left its mark with more than 300,000 solders killed and the medieval town flattened. Now rebuilt using money paid by Germany in reparation. We stop at the arched Menin Gate built to commemorate those soldiers who fell during the war.

Next is Bruges, and though the clouds block the sun it still holds its magic charm. In the little alleys horses clip clop along with their tourists who strain their necks to look up at the many medieval towers that rise into the sky. We pass the protected swans, busy building their nests along the canal and on down the cobbled streets lined with antique stalls, over the stone bridges and under archways ending up at the ‘Grand Place’ where we each sketch our chosen corner of the magnificent square in the last of the sunlight, savouring the atmosphere.

Holland greets us with its green fields, crisscrossed by waterways where cows and sheep graze and windmills dot the landscape. We catch up with friends and do some necessary repairs to the camper. Firstly, two new tyres fitted, one to replace a puncture and the second tyre simply worn out over the miles. Then there’s the electrical work to fix the fridge, which has shorted out, and new wheel bearings to get our warrant of fitness.

While the camper is undergoing repairs we are given a curtsey car, a Renault with no key to start it. Instead it has an immobilizer card you carry with you which automatically locks and unlocks the doors as you near the car with a push button ignition to start. We drive to nearby Bunschoten-Spakenburg a 15th century historic fishing and shipbuilding village on the Zuiderzee. Most of the women here still wear the traditional dress. We sketch the men at work crafting the old boats. Most of the land around this district has been reclaimed from the sea, as has 1/3rd of all land in Holland. We return to the garage around mid-day to find Victory waiting in the yard for us now with her new WOF.

Monday, May 17, 2010

“Oh to be in England when spring is in the air”

Fields of lush greens mixed with iridescent patches of yellow flowering rapeseed.

Leafy green forests carpeted in scented blue bells and wild flowers, streets scattered with pink petals from the cherry blossoms and gardens splashed with the scarlet and pinks of the azaleas. Frosty mornings with sun not warm enough to ward off the chill, is our England in May.

We make the most of London catching up with our friends, where we stay, upending their routine with our whirlwind of cleaning and packing.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To read our adventures in China and see photos click on older posts at the bottom of page

Monday, May 10, 2010

China - Beijing

My China experience was fantastic. Our accommodation in the heart of Beijing at the Down Town Backpackers can be recommended. We had good service and a great room. Set in the centre of the Hutong district with narrow, tree lined allies laid out in a criss-cross pattern built during the Ming Dynasty. All very entertaining - red lanterns hang around the doors and continuous waves of grey concrete tiles linked one to another.

Old three wheel bikes towing little carts full of all kinds of paraphernalia from garbage to supplies pass up and down the alley along with the cars, bells ringing as warning to pedestrians. It’s like stepping back in time.

The little shops, some only 2 metres square, full to brimming with curios from silk to flutes or ocarinas, jewellery, tea, food stalls, musical shops etc.

We dinned at the local restaurants sampling the Chinese cuisine, ordering a variety of dishes and found most to our liking.

The thrill for me was the ‘Great Wall’ walk from Jinshanling to Samaitai. We were collected from our backpackers at 7.30am with about 12 others, all rather young and fit looking. It was a 3½ hour drive to the mountains and our driver played dodgems with the traffic all the way. There seems to be no rules here on passing. Sometimes a duel carriageway becomes three lanes as they all try to manoeuvre at once with horns tooting in all directions. Our 4 hour hike was all and more than I expected, fantastic, exhilarating, strenuous and hot, many, many steps, with broken and crumbling paths and as warned some steep drops. The view across the mountains and valleys below was superb. We were accompanied by our guide and also by Mongolian hawkers trying to sell their wears. I brought a tee shirt with ‘I have walked the Great Wall’, as my trophy. Towards the end my energy was beginning to fade and the steep steps almost got the better of me. I avoided the swing wire return down the valley, which looked very scary to say the least, deciding instead to do the last half hour on foot. The rest of the crew were already onboard the bus having beaten us by half an hour.

On the 8 May a Chinese artist and friend gave us a guided tour around the district known as the 798 in the northeast region of the city. An old converted factory with many of the chimneys, mill wheels and lifting cranes from the past still there. A large, black steam train sits in a disused station now a popular backdrop for wedding photos and being Saturday we saw many brides posing in various places. There are streets of warehouses that have been converted into galleries, artist studios and cafes with all kinds of art and crafts. We experienced some mind stretching modern art through to some of the more traditional styles.

On the way home we stopped off at the silk market, in a large multi storied building full of stalls packed to brimming with most things you could think of in the clothing, jewellery line as well as arts and craft. Here you could buy material and have it made up to any garment you desired and barter the price down depending on your strength and willpower. They were very aggressive sellers and we found the atmosphere too much for tired travellers so only brought a few things and left for the quieter area of the Hutongs.

9 May - Forbidden City

After our cooked breakfast which was included in the price of our accommodation at NZ$18 per night, we head out to the Forbidden City. The entry gate of which is depicted on their bank notes. The cost of entry is 60 Yuan or NZ$12 which is very cheap as the city encompasses an area of 74 hectares or 183 acres of magnificent halls, palaces, courtyards and imperial gardens, surrounded by 8 metre high walls to keep out the masses and protect the royals. Built in 1420 it has been the home to some 24 consecutive rulers with all their servants, eunuchs and concubines. It was massive with row upon row of ornate red buildings with yellow tiled roofs and blue and green painted decorations under the eves. Large golden urns sat in front of each building some as water storage others for burning pine used as incense. We spent 4 hours from 8.30 with the crowds increasing as the day progressed and only seeing a small portion of the compound, although most of the main buildings. We walked out the south gate towards Tiananmen Square that occupies 40 hectares (99 acres), the largest public square on earth. We didn’t cross the busy road to explore as we were tired and in need of sustenance so headed instead in search of food.

Walking down one of Beijing’s more modern streets filled with upmarket department stores we found a food court where we stopped for lunch. Just to the side of this street was a maze of markets, we ventured in for a quick wonder and found food stalls with live scorpions and seahorses on meat skewers for sale as food snacks! Glad we didn’t eat there!

We climbed the hill to the Northern end of the Forbidden city, built by hand from soil dug out of the palace moat in the early 15th century. At the summit is the pavilion with one of the finest views of the city overlooking all the golden rooftops where we sit and take in the ambience.

Back down we walk around Beihai Park, Beijing’s oldest imperial garden built on the cities largest lake over 800 years ago then took a taxi back to the backpackers, with just enough time to shower and change for the acrobatic show. Here we saw young acrobats performing contortions that you wouldn’t believe possible. From juggling to wire rope walking and balancing acts.

A great show and a good way to spend our last night in Beijing.