Ponte a Serraglio

Ponte a Serraglio
Painted in Northern Italy 2009

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 Lim├│ncello 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 fa├žade 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!