On Wednesday, 21st, we took a bus tour from Florence through the Tuscan countryside south of the city to nearby Siena, on the way visiting the villages of Monteriggioni and San Gimignano and having a wine tasting lunch.
San Gimignano is a small, picturesque, walled town with a castle on top of the hill. This was a typical bus tour flying visit with just an hour scheduled. San Gimignano was famous for it’s tower houses, most of which are gone, but the height of the tower indicated the wealth of the family concerned. There were some 72 towers once, now down to just 13 remaining. The village was apparently founded by the Etruscans, rather than the Romans. Our guide told us the Etruscans built on hill tops but the Romans favoured rivers!
Moneriggioni is a large castle with a village inside it. It was built by the Sienese in the 13 century as a defence against the Florentine Medici and was reputed to be impregnable, until 1554. The Medicis laid siege to the castle and in typically Medici style deployed their powerful and exceptionally large ‘Seige Wallet‘. They simply bribed someone to leave the castle gates unlocked – and then Monteriggioni wasn’t so impregnable after all!
After leaving Monteriggioni we were taken to a local vineyard for lunch and a wine tasting; the almost obligatory attempt to flog very expensive wine and obscenely expensive Balsamic Vinegar to a bus load of tourists. The vinegar was really good, the price not so much and we were introduced to various varieties of Chianti, but I am afraid it was lost on Valeria and I; we liked the red but not the white so much ….. Philistines!
Siena was our final, and longest, stop. Legend has it that the city was founded by the sons of Remus, co founder of Rome. This is supposedly why Siena and Rome use the wolf suckling two children as their ‘badge’; apparently both the stories about the founder and the badge are just myths.
The high lights of the visit were the main square, the Piazza del Campo. They hold a horse race around the square twice a year and scenes from ‘Quantum of Solace’ were filmed there.
The real attraction though is the Cathedral; The Duomo di Siena. It is magnificently decorated. We were told by our guide that the interior of the Duomo was more impressive than that of Florence’s much larger version; having now seen both we can confirm she was right. It is magnificent, the Reading Room doubly so, and photographs simply can’t do it justice.
It was a full day and nice to get out to see a bit of the surrounding area. Tuscany, or the bit we saw from the bus windows is very picturesque and the villages and towns are quaint. Siena probably has more to offer than our 3 hours there afforded us, but if nothing else the Duomo was well worth the visit!
Tuesday, the 20th, was our first full day in Florence and we went for a wander to get our bearings.
Although Florence is a maze of narrow streets these suddenly open out into large piazzas allowing you to actually stand back and see the monumental architecture, not always possible in other places! Once you get your bearings navigating between the churches and palaces is not too difficult.
Without our Firenze Card at this point we decided to head for the free stuff, of which there is not a lot. The most obvious is the Piazzale Michaelangelo on the south bank of the river offering spectacular views across the city. There is also the Abbey of San Minato al Monte above the Piazzale. The facade is impressive but the interior not so much. We also followed a recommendation for a restaurant and had dinner in the Trattoria La Casalinga – the meals were great and the fillet steak was excellent!
So with an better idea of what to see and where to see it we decided to take Wednesday and Thursday to see some of the countryside around Florence and then dedicate the weekend to seeing the city itself.
We left Lugano on Monday, 19th March on the train to Florence having planned a week in an Air B&B guest house in the centre of town. We knew there was a lot to see there but now, having done it, realise that is a massive understatement.
We bought ourselves Firenze Cards, which are 72 hour passes giving access to all the museums and monuments and each one was grander than the last. But I get ahead of myself.
We arrived on Monday afternoon and with our planned bus stop programmed into Google Maps set off from the train station …. into a building site; the bus stop was under a large pile of bricks! We managed to find the temporary stop and then caught the small electric shuttle bus that runs around the tiny back streets of the city. These buses might be environmentally friendly, but they are the most uncomfortable vehicles in existence. They have elliptical wheels, no suspension and run on cobbled streets. It dropped us off a short walk from our Air B&B, on the top floor of a building right alongside the Palazzo Vecchio. It was quirky place but ideal for our needs and it was entirely central.
With 7 days in town and the Firenze Card only lasting 3 days we decided to reconnoitre on Tuesday, take a bus tour into the Tuscan countryside on Wednesday, and on Thursday, the best forecast weather, a day trip on the train to Cinqueterra, 5 coastal villages in a National Park near La Spezia. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we would ‘do’ Florence on the Firenze Card before catching the over night bus back to Roccella.
Our last day in Lugano was Sunday, 18th March. The weather was chilly and overcast but not raining and Marco and Soraia took us out for the day again, this time headed up into the Alps, well the Alpine foot hills, above Locarno.
We drove up the Maggia valley leading north from the shore of Lake Maggiore at Locarno and followed it up above the snow line, passing through Cevio towards Val Bavona. The valley seems to have old stone built villages every 1 or 2 km along its entire length.
Originally working villages they are now predominantly holiday homes, but at the top of the valley we found a working farm selling goats cheese (an honesty box and an open fridge!) On the way back down we found a nice restaurant, the Grotto Baloi in Fontana, for a simple lunch of Polenta and Cheese. Valeria was just happy with the roaring log fire!
From there we drove back down the valley to Locarno on the shores of Lake Maggiore and stopped for a wander around town before returning to Lugano.
Marco and Soraia treated us to another great day out in the magnificent countryside where they live. Despite being overcast and a bit damp Valeria loved it because she hadn’t seen snow for, oh, about 2 weeks!!
But, sadly, this was our last day here; on Monday we catch the train south again to Florence. It’s been fantastic to spend time with Marco and Soraia again and they made our first, fleeting, visit to Switzerland a great experience.
From Gandria Marco and Soraia drove us north to the town of Bellinzona, the capital of the Canton of Ticino. The city is at the head of the Lake Maggiore valley and boasts the well preserved and extensive remains of its original town walls which includes the three separate, but linked, castles of Castelgrande, Sasso Corbaro and Montebello.
Bellinzona is situated on one of the main north south Alpine trade routes and as such has been fortified for centuries with newer fortifications simply being built on top of the older ones.
In the 14th century the Milenese Visconti family actually built a wall across the entire 1 km width of the Tessin the valley to ensure control of the trade route over the St Gothard Pass and the current fortifications originate with the modernisations under taken by the Sforza, the last Milanese Dukes. In 1499 the French took Bellinzona on their way to Milan, but only managed to hold the city until the following year when the townspeople revolted and kicked them out. Seeking protection from the French the city joined the Swiss Confederation in 1500.
The old town below the fortifications and within the remains of the city wall is wonderfully traditional and is centred around the Cathedral and Town Hall in adjacent ‘squares’.
The Town Hall (Palazzo Civico) is built around an open quadrangle. It has a fabulously decorated wood panel ceiling and the walls are decorated with murals depicting changes to the city over the centuries
The castles at Bellinzona are impressive, as they are supposed to be, and the old town is how I had envisaged Lugano might have looked; which is why Marco and Soraia brought us here! It was a great day out and we enjoyed our visit immensely!
On Friday the weather was the complete opposite to Thursday, gloriously bright and warm. Marco and Soraia took us for a drive around the Lugano area, starting with a trip part way up Mount Brè for some stunning views over Lugano and Lake Lugano and then down to lakeside Gandria.
From Brè we drove down to the delightful lakeside village of Gandria on the north western shore of Lake Lugano.
This quaint little place clings to the steep lake shore just inside the Swiss / Italian border. The village was originally higher up the mountain side but apparently was moved to the lake shore in about the 14th century. Always rather isolated the area was known for its olives. In my ignorance I had never associated Alpine lakes with such a Mediterranean crop! A harsh winter in 1709 killed off the trees but they have recently been replanted and the foot path between Lugano and Gandria is known as the Olive Path.
Gandria also produced silk and was a centre for smuggling due to high Swiss customs dues. Apparently there is a Customs Museum in Cantine di Gandria on the lake shore opposite Gandria which, according to Wikipedia, exhibits a submarine which was used to smuggle salami. Regrettably we never got to see the Salami Smuggling Submarine!
Gandria was a lovely suprise. Picture postcard quaint and the sort of place to enjoy lunch overlooking the lake, but we were off to spend the afternoon in Bellinzona.
We left Milan at lunch time on Thursday in the pouring rain, headed for Lugano, a 90 minute bus journey away. Unfortunately, with the exception of Friday, the weather remained rather wet and cold for the whole of our visit.
We were to stay with our friends Marco and Soraia, who we last saw in Brasil in 2016. They met us at the bus stop to drive us to their apartment and then, despite the rain which persisted all evening, we took a stroll around Luguano town centre. It has evolved over the years into an expensive shopping venue at the expense of its previous, more traditional appearance, but even in the evening rain it was pleasant to wander around.
Lugano originated as a market town some time before the 10th century and was a part of Milanese Lombardy, until coming under French control in 1500.
It was a Swiss domain between 1513 to 1798 when Napoleon arrived and created the Helvetic Republic which replaced the Swiss Confederation. The city burst onto the international stage in 1956 when Lugano hosted the first Eurovision Song Contest!
In the following decades Lugano became a banking centre, based on Italian cash; this in turn attracted people with money to spend. However, with the relaxing of Swiss banking secrecy the banking economy has reduced and a recent decision to ban wearing burkas has pursaded a significant number of visitors to shop else where.
In the rain it is difficult to wax lyrical about Lugano but as I said it is a pleasant lakeside city. As it transpired we spent little time here as, happily, Marco and Soraia had plans to show us a lot more of Ticino outside Lugano itself.
Our first stop in our short tour of Northern Italy was Milan, a two hour flight from Lamezia Terme. Valeria and her new friends from Roccella had a rather wet and rainy ‘Girl’s Weekend’ in Milan first and I flew up to join her on Monday, 12th March. We spent 3 nights in an Air B&B apartment over looking the Piazza de XXIV Maggio on the south side of town. Luckily for us I brought the sun from Roccella and we had two days of glorious weather; in contrast to Valeria’s damp weekend. In the rain Milan has little to commend it other than shopping and Prosecco!
Milan was founded in about 600BC by a Celtic tribe and was conquered by Rome in 222BC, therafter rising in importance to become the capital of the western Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages Milan suffered centuries of destruction and rebuilding at the hands of the Goths, Visigoths, Ostragoths and Attila the Hun. It was conquered by the Lombards and then in the 8th century fell to Charlemagne and the Franks.
By the end of the 12th century Milan had become a Duchy and the conquering and destruction seems to have abated under the three Ducal families, first the Torres, followed by the Visconti and lastly the Sforza. Our tour guide told us that the last of the Torre Dukes in Milan was imprisoned by the new Visconti family in an open air cage in Como. They fed him bread and water for the 18 months it took him to die of exposure and malnutrition. George Martin didn’t need to look too hard for inspiration for Game of Thrones!
In 1500 the French, having found the Italian city states unable to defend themselves, seized the city and heralded a period until the 19th century when control of Milan alternated between the Spanish, French and Austrians with monotonous regularity. In the mid 19th century the Kingdom of Sardinia backed the Milanese against the Austrians resulting in the Sardinians gaining control over what is now Italy. In 1861 the Kingdom of Sardinia became the Kingdom of Italy.
Milan also has the dubious honour of being the birth place, in 1919, of Facism, but was also where it ended when Partisans strung Mussolini up after the war. The city was also a target for heavy bombing by the Allies in WWII. Apparently the Duomo was relatively unscathed because that was the bomber’s land mark.
So, after centuries of being destroyed, sacked, depopulated, rebuilt, reorganised and redeveloped there isn’t much of ‘old’ Milan left; other than the Sforza Castle and the Napoleonic Arch of Peace most of the remaining monumental buildings are religious.
We had two days to explore Milan and took a Walking Tour on Tuesday starting at the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie. housing Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and ending at the Duomo, or Milan Cathedral stopping at the Castle, La Scala Theatre and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on the way. On Wednesday we walked around quite a few more of the sights and it is far easier just to show the photos.
I personally didn’t find Milan a particularly attractive city. However; with its history that is understandable. The buildings now standing were apparently designed to be plain outside but we’re built around pretty hidden courtyards so as not to boast Milanese wealth to the various occupying powers. There is also a vast amount of grafitti which adds to the sometimes drab, unloved appearance.
BUT, its architecture is massively impressive, and it is home to some stunning monumental architecture. We spent an enjoyable time wandering around town and the real challenge here has been to cut down on the number of photographs I wanted to use!
February in Roccella has been slightly busier than January, slowly working through our ‘To Do’ list while keeping up with the social life, continuing our Italian classes and I did a bit of sewing. Valeria also took a week back in the UK, timed to perfection with the arrival of the new Ice Age.
I have fixed the freezer – cool segway there – replacing the thermostat and have also serviced the engines. The new Code Zero sail has arrived but I need to fit the torsion wire and the furling mechanism. The jetty we are on is covered in sand and grit which will do the sail no good, but happily the Community Centre building is just about big enough to take the sail which is over 20 metres long when laid out!
But my major achievement this month has been making a sun awning for the front of the boat.
Originally a guy on a neighbouring boat, who does sail repairs, started the project off by sewing the panels together but had to return to the UK before he could finish it.
So I borrowed his sewing machine, learned to use it and prepared the biggest ‘Test Piece’ you can imagine. The completed awning is 2.8m long by 5.6m wide, and was obviously bigger before I started cutting and sewing, but the Community Centre served as a fantastic work area. It wasn’t the most complex job, all straight edges with some little loops around the edges to tie it down, but it was an enjoyable couple of days and I even managed to not sew myself to the cloth!! And best of all, it fits!
The rest of the month has been spent socialising at the Sunday BBQs and amongst ourselves on our various boats and occasional meals out – usually pizza after Italian classes. We are now firm friends with another couple of catamaran owners on the quayside, so much so that Valeria, Sue and Suzy are all off to Milan for a Girls Weekend over the first weekend in March!
Immediately following on from that Valeria has been planning a 10 day trip for us travelling around northern Italy and visiting an old school friend in Switzerland, while I have been planning our route through the southern Agean islands for the summer.
And it is now only about 6 weeks before we set off again!
After the best part of 3 months in the UK spending time with our friends and relations over Christmas and the New Year, we returned to Roccella on 15th January and resumed our live aboard life; leaking toilet and a defective freezer thermostat welcoming us back home for a start!
On arrival at Lamezia Terme airport we hired a car for the first week and made a couple of shopping runs to the local Lidl equivalent, called MD, and stocked up on the basic consumables and took an exploratory trip into the hills with a brief visit a town called Gerace. That was a really pleasant surprise and when we hire a car later we will be returning for a longer visit.
The ‘Live Aboard’ community here is beginning to swell as folks return from their winter breaks, although some have been here the entire time. Unfortunately the Australian flu has found its way here and almost everyone has been laid low with it. We had ours before we left the UK and Valeria was running a Red Cross food station sending pots of soup and the odd meal to the afflicted, handed over on the end of a boat hook, just in case. But with the flu receding the BBQs and social evenings on neighbouring boats have been picking up.
The weather is still rather cold in the evenings although the days are really quite pleasant when the wind isn’t howling. On our third day back we were lashed by 60 knot (70 mph or 120 kph) winds over night which was not fun. The previous storm actually collapsed one of the pontoons with two boats attached! We all came through unscathed this time although a dingy was blown from the beach at the local sailing club just outside the harbour.
With almost 3 months here before we set off again it is time to make repairs, service machinery, buy equipment and stow away all the stuff we brought with us from the UK. We are awaiting a new freezer thermostat, engine and winch spares and I am trying to source rope from the local hardware store which is the nearest thing to a Chandlery. I am also working up a ‘shopping list’ of bits only available from a chandlery, there is a helpful one just down the road and across the ferry in Syracuse. Also before leaving for Christmas we ‘commissioned’ an awning from one of the other guys in the marina but for various reasons he can’t finish it, so I will be playing with his sewing machine. And just to keep ourselves mentally and physically active, we’re taking Italian lessons at the local school; I say local but it is a 40 minute walk each way.
There is also the passage planning for next year to consider, and we are also hoping to take a week or so to travel through Italy from north to south, perhaps starting with a visit to friends in Lugano, then stopping off in Como, Milan and Florence. All places we wanted to visit in 2016 and 2017 but never managed to fit in.