Umbria and Montepulciano

Originally we had planned to spend a couple of days in Rome on our way south. As our plans have totally changed and the weather has been unseasonably hot (like never below 30 deg during the day) we thought Rome would not be pleasant. We spent several days there with the girls 16 years ago so we have at least been there before. 

As we have never been to Umbria we thought why not spend a few days at Lake Tresimino in northern Umbria and use it as a base for exploring the countryside. We found a great campsite with a pitch beside the lake – all new facilities and a great swimming pool (very necessary in the heat). From there we visited Montepulciano  – one of the only places we have visited before. We both remembered really enjoying our brief stay there with the girls.

Old well – Montepulciano
Great view for a mid morning coffee

View from Montepulciano over the countryside
Entrance to Montepulciano
Montepulciano has many underground wine cellars several centuries old which are still in use today
Gubbio is a lesser known hill town to the north east of Lake Tresimino which climbs steeply up the hillside.

Gubbio is full of narrow alleys like this.
And tall buildings supported on huge arches.

We also visited Cortona which even though it has become touristy as a result of becoming famous in “Under the Tuscan Sun” is still worth a visit in the late afternoon after most of the tourist hordes have left. 

Best gelato so far – Snoopy’s Gelateria

Then Richard suggested we walk through town up to the fortress. Turned out to be a huge climb up steep streets then rough gravel roads  and not connected to the town at all – sensible people drove up in the 32 degree heat. The fortress was disappointing and the views were nothing great – it seems to be mainly used for art exhibitions and concerts.

The next day was the highlight of our time in Umbria. Richard had found a day tour that offered truffle hunting and authentic local experiences with a local family from a high mountain village http://www.umbrianculture.com/ It had received excellent reviews and we weren’t disappointed. And to top it off, it was run by a Kiwi called Mac who had lived in Italy for 20 years and married into the local family. The family of Francesca, his wife, had owned the land with other families for 600 years. 

First we went truffle hunting with Mac, his wife’s cousins Luca and the 2 truffle dogs up in the forest above the village. The high forest areas are opened to truffle hunting later in the season than other areas and had only just opened. As it had been very dry for the last few months the truffles we found were smaller than normal.


The results from our hour long truffle hunt

Then we went to visit the family flock of sheep which are milked to make pecorino cheese. They are looked after by a shepherd ( currently Mac’s cousin from NZ) and several very large special Maremma sheep dogs which were so eager for our attention. Mac and Francesca have about 20 dogs in total! This type of small scale enterprise is the norm in Italy – in NZ they would say it was uneconomic – with families making cheese for their own use and to sell. No stringent requirements for pasteurisation and sterile premises here. It is refreshing to see how traditional ways of preparing foods are still widely used. 



For “morning tea” we were treated to scrambled eggs cooked on a burner served with some of the truffle we had found and olive oil. Yummm! All washed down with a glass or 2 of prosecco. 


Then it was back to Pettino, a tiny mountain village where Mac and Francesca live – with lots more animals.

Loved this pig.

And a pasta making demonstration by Francesca which we then ate for lunch with the local truffle sauce – grated truffle, garlic and olive oil. The family is about 75% self sufficient in food – making cheese, prosciutto and with a large vegetable garden. They also hunt in winter and use some of the sheep for meat. For lunch we got to try roasted pigeon! Home reared. 

Cheese with mould -gets wiped off regularly!

Home made sausage

Lunch was a true family affair – being Saturday and the start of school holidays Mac and Francesca’s 2 young children joined us as well as Luca. Richard even played ”soccer” with the 7 year old.  Lunch was washed down with plenty of wine – apparently drunk with every meal here! 

A great day that we would recommend to anyone staying in the area. We learnt so much about their lifestyle in this remote village and the way traditional methods of food preparation and preservation have been carried on through the generations.

We decided to cut short our visit to Umbria/Tuscany after this trip – even though we hadn’t managed to see several of the places we wanted to visit. With a forecast of even higher temperatures in the mid 30’s the thought of wandering around hill towns and Florence was not appealing- the swimming pool at the campground got a lot of use. 

It was time to head for the mountains with a stop in Venice on the way.

Southern Sardinia

Our next stop was near the capital of Sardinia, Cagliari. The nearest campground was about 25 km east. Once we were off the main highway the traffic was terrible and made us realise how scary it can be to drive in Italy, getting worse the further south we go. The accident rate must be horrendous. We have driven long distances in a large number of European countries and Italy is definitely the worst. Overtaking on blind corners is the norm here and courteous drivers are few and far between. We have seen lots of near misses. On Sardinia there are lots of rural areas with straight roads which have a 50km/hr speed limit which is crazy -I think the average speed in these areas is more like 80-100 km/hr. Speed limits don’t mean anything. A Swiss couple we met who have a holiday house also said that there are no checks on drink driving either because the local police do it too!!

We stayed in Cagliari 2 nights – enough time to visit Cagliari one evening and wander around the old town, visit the beaches to the east and to visit Su Nuraxi, over an hour’s drive to the north.

Cagliari was not as good as the guide book made out but we did have a good simple dinner there. Richard opted for the roast suckling pig while I thought I would try yet another Sardinian speciality – a pasta stuffed with sheep’s cheese served in a sage, saffron and butter sauce – delicious!

Cagliari

The next morning we headed off early to beat the heat and visit Su Nuraxi which is regarded as the best of the 1000’s of nuraghe sites which are unique to Sardinia. The site dates from 1500 BC -so 3500 years old! The visit is with a guide only. The site was only discovered in the 1950’s when a major storm washed a lot of soil away that had built up over 1000’s of years. The site is large with most of the original towers and the bases of the dwellings intact – so you could wind your way through the narrow passage ways and up the original stairs. As this was built in the Middle Bronze Age, there was no mortar to hold the stones together. The design was very clever for that Age with multi-storey towers built with vaulted roofs that then formed the floor of the storey above. 




We were really impressed by the site and the level of sophistication in the design of the towers from 3500 years ago.

One thing we have noticed about most of Sardinia is how arid it is – apparently there had not been any rain for 3 months in Cagliari and with summer starting there is unlikely to be any more for months. Apparently most of the water for agriculture comes from underground rivers. The south western part of the island is not nearly as attractive as the north east except for some beautiful beaches in the south east. 

The last day we went out to Villasimius and the Capo Cabonara. Lots of beautiful beaches.


Then it was time to head for the car ferry -and a nasty surprise awaited Richard. Even though we had supplied details of our length plus the trailer the deckhands started off by wanting us to go up a narrow ramp to the upper deck. No way, we said. We are too high and too wide. So then they decided we were like a truck which was fine until we saw massive trucks having to back right back into the bowels of the boat. Richard had been so sure a large car ferry like this one would be a drive on – drive off type. Well he was so wrong! He ended up having to drive on, do a tight U turn then back into a space in the middle of the ferry. It didn’t help that the deckhand didn’t speak a word of English and was trying to give Richard confusing directions about where to go. Then he lost the plot and did a very Italian gesture of “What the …!” – all while I was trying to give Richard calm directions according to the system that we have worked out while avoiding huge trucks reversing alongside me.  Probably our most stressful time with the van so far!! We got there in the end. Can’t say we are impressed by Tirrenia Ferries at all – the ferry was an old tub with delusions of grandeur and the food was inedible. By contrast our overnight trip from Denmark to Norway last year was a delight. 

Next stop – Umbria. 

North western Sardinia

Our next stop was a campground a few kilometres north of Alghero overlooking a large lagoon and just across the road from the beach that extends all the way to Alghero. The sea is a lovely temperature for swimming so it has become a daily ritual for me – a relief in these 30 degree plus temperatures. 

Our first side trip in the area was to Neptune’s Grotto at Capo Caccia not far to the northwest  of Alghero, a network of caverns with a salt water pool in it refreshed at high tide or with big seas. We had to go down and back up 670 steps to get there. We were quite proud of the fact that we made it back to the top without a rest. In calm seas you can arrive by boat. What an amazing place at the base of towering limestone cliffs! Richard, who used to go caving for fun in his younger days, ranks it as the best he has seen. 



You can see the scale by looking at the walkway on the right.

Stintino Beach to the north of Alghero is regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe – or it would be if you could see it under all the people and umbrellas. There is no denying the beautiful turquoise water though. 


Alghero itself has a lovely old town. We had an excellent seafood meal one night. The western coast is known for its seafood while the east coast and inland are more meat focussed. One of the world car rally championships was being held nearby with the finish line in town – all the cars had to do a lap through the old town afterwards. Traffic wardens would blow a whistle and everyone had to get out of the way into shop doorways as the cars came down narrow streets which are normally pedestrian only.


We came across this police car which looked for real – all the comm gear inside. Can’t imagine the motorway police in NZ getting a Lamborghini but I guess they have to be fast to catch speeding drivers here. 


As part of the celebrations we came across different dance groups representing different regions of Sardinia performing to live music in various squares in the town. We felt very lucky to have been in town when all this was happening. 

We loved this reed pipe. Incredible what this guy was playing.


Bosa 

We moved on from Alghero to a campsite near the town of Bosa, further down the west coast. It was a beautiful drive with incredible views along the coast.


The campground location was also stunning and we scored a pitch by the water but the facilities were basic to say the least. Richard opted for a shower in the van that night.


We had heard that Bosa was worth a look- a pretty town beside a river with lots of pastel coloured houses stacked up a steep hill below the castle – but on reflection it was probably not worth a special stop.


Our next brief stop was near Oristano, further down the west coast, near the Punic and Roman ruins at Tharros. The site was quite impressive given that much of it is from a few centuries BC although nothing compares to Ephesus in Turkey. 

We were glad we were staying only one night though – the campground was really crowded, shower was cold and disco music from somewhere nearby kept us awake until 3 am. Richard took such a dislike to the campground we were up and ready to go by 8 am!

Next stop – Southern Sardinia

Bonifacio, Corsica

Santa Teresa, about 20 minutes drive from our campground, is a departure point for ferries to Bonifacio at the southern end of Corsica. We have always wondered about going to Corsica but were put off taking the van there when we heard stories about the narrow winding roads. A day trip to Bonifacio sounded perfect. We decided to take little Twiggy so that we could venture further afield. It was with great delight that I found out that the car ferry only unloaded one way (not drive on- drive off like all the other ones we have been on – even the small ones in Norway) as Richard had always been adamant that there was no way ferries would require drivers to reverse on or off as I had read in blogs about car ferries in Greece. On our return he had to reverse on all the way to the back on the side, not easy even in Twiggy- there is no way we would even contemplate it with the van plus trailer but you wouldn’t want to be caught unawares.

Bonifacio has an impressive location. The old town and bastide is on top of high white cliffs with some parts overhanging. Apparently a house was lost off the top some years ago because of subsidence. There was a cliff top walkway with great views back to the town and along the coast.





Lunch was an excellent bouillabaisse which we hadn’t found in any restaurants around Nîmes or Nice. 


After lunch we decided to give the King of Aragon’s stairway a go. This is an incredibly steep staircase leading down a narrow scarp in the limestone cliff to sea level which has been improved over the 2000 years of its existence -187 stairs with each one the height of 2-3 normal stairs. Going up was a challenge for my short legs.


Bonifacio is definitely worth a day trip but on reflection we didn’t need Twiggy. We took a drive up as far as Porto Vecchio as it was supposed to be worth visiting but while the town was attractive it was some distance from the sea with no visual connection.     We didn’t have time to go further afield although I have heard that the scenery elsewhere on the island is amazing. 

Next blog – north western Sardinia (we are not moving far each time!)

Northeastern Sardinia

Three weeks ago we had never considered going to Sardinia even though we had met someone from there while in Piedmont and another person who had raved about it. It was a bit too far off the itinerary we had planned. Then we kept on meeting people who had been there and loved it, including someone who had worked there for 2 years. He mentioned we could get the ferry from Livorno and back to Rome and continue our trip from there. He also said that the temperatures in the south near Lecce where we had planned to go would be well into the 30’s by the time we got there even going directly down through Tuscany and Umbria. He said Sardinia would be a more comfortable temperature. As we were going to be near Livorno with meeting Anna at Pisa, we thought why not? 
The day ferry took about 7 hours and we landed at Oblia on the northeast coast and went straight to the campground Richard had found, on the beach at San Teodoro. It has a lovely beach but even though late May – early June is supposed to be relatively quiet in Sardinia we were surprised at how many people were on the beach. 


We visited a small fortress village nearby at Posada which contained the ruins of a castle dating from the 1300s plus a lookout tower which has been restored with a commanding view over the countryside. On one side the houses below the castle remains appear to cling to the cliff. 




I found on the internet an interesting place for dinner – fixed menu, agriturismo restaurant where everyone had to arrive before 8.30 pm when a gong sounded and the food started to appear. The setting was lovely – a stone and thatch round building. The food became a deluge – I think we had about 9-10 courses and they weren’t small. There was an incredible variety focussing on Sardinian specialities and it was all very tasty, washed down of course by unlimited quantities of rough red wine served in a litre jug. Actually it grew on us and it cut through the richness of some of the food. Half the time we had no idea what we were getting as almost no English was spoken. I thought it would be fun to post the photos of the food to show just how much we were given – I missed out photographing one of the dessert courses which were served with a choice of limoncello or grappa. 

Antipasti course -after we have eaten most of the cheese and meat
Hot mixed antipasti course
Didn’t like the liver but the meatballs were great
Gnoccetta (sp?) is like baby gnocchi. Ravioli was superb.
Roast suckling pig
Cheese pie for desert – drizzled with honey
 

After 2 nights at San Teodoro we decided to move on to the northern end of Sardinia as it was closer to some of the places we wanted to visit. One thing we have realised is that away from the main route that crosses the centre of the island, it takes a long time to get anywhere as the roads are quite windy and often have a 50km/hr speed limit which is pretty much ignored except in the places where it is not possible to travel any faster. The countryside in the northeast is very hilly with a narrow coastal plain in some areas and is very arid and rocky, reminding us of the islands in northern Croatia we visited several years ago. Lots of sandy beaches interspersed with rocky coves.

Our campground is at top left of photo

We found yet another tower dating from the 1300’s. 


We booked a trip out on a yacht to the Maddalena Islands near the town of Palau. It was a wonderful day and we even sailed  when there was enough wind. The water is so clear and turquoise blue I couldn’t resist having several swims.


We visited this beach where the sand is quite pink in places. Our skipper (with ponytail) took us to meet his friend who lives like a castaway in this structure on the island during summer who explained how the pink colour comes from a microorganism which lives on a plant that grows in shallow water around the area. the currents converge to bring all the pink from the dead microorganisms to this beach only. We were sitting on platforms swinging on ropes in his “lounge”. 



The northeast coast has quite a few places worth visiting. We came across one of the nuraghe that Sardinia is famous for. These are ancient dwellings and other structures were built 3500 years ago during the Middle Bronze Age! It is incredible to think that these have remained intact for so long. This one was 2 storeys high and came complete with a population of miniature bats. 



Tempo was a quiet hill town near the nuraghe where we stopped for lunch. A lot of cork trees grow in this area and we came across this amazing shop where the owner has created fabric from cork and is seeking a patent for the process. He had beautiful dresses, quilts, even curtains as well as handbags and shoes. The cork fabric was like very soft suede to the touch.


Our next stop was Castelsardo on the coast west of where we were staying which boasts a prominent castle and associated village below it. Great views from the top.



This blog has become very long!! So much to talk about. We are really enjoying what Sardinia has to offer now that we are away from the east coast near the main port we arrived at, Olbia.

Next blog – a day trip to Bonifacio at southern end of Corsica. 

Cinque Terre, Lucca and wine tasting picnic near San Miniato

We arrived at one of the many mediocre looking campsites near Viareggio, our destination only because it was convenient to Pisa airport. Anna and Jonson flew in from London for the UK long weekend and were keen to go to the Cinque Terre. All the campsites look much the same here with large numbers of privately owned adapted caravans with ugly shade shelters built over them. At least the facilities were good and the beach was 1 kilometre away through the forest park that runs along the beach for many kilometres here. It means that you can’t get a beach front campground but at least the beach is not developed with the ubiquitous rows of sun loungers and umbrellas in rows that you get everywhere else on the beach here. To our Kiwi eyes the beaches are nothing special but the Europeans love them and spend huge amounts of time soaking up the sun. 


The Cinque Terre was, as we expected at this time of year, crowded with tourists but it was a beautiful day and very hot. Too hot to walk very far between villages. The walk that I was keen to do between Riomaggiore and Mandorla was closed for maintenance just like the last time we were here in 2001 so we walked up to the view points overlooking Vernazza instead.



 After a delicious spaghetti con frutti del mare at a restaurant in the main square by the harbour we hired a small boat (think large dinghy) to travel back to Riomaggiore as a more pleasant alternative to catching the train. It is definitely the best way to see the villages of the Cinque Terre. Jonson, Anna and I couldn’t resist having a swim at the rocky “beach” at Riomaggiore. Beautifully clear water and just what was needed to beat the heat. 


Anna was keen to go inland to see the typical Tuscan countryside of vineyards and olive trees and have a picnic.  After a chance stop at the Tourist Office in the lovely village of San Miniato, we found out about a wine and truffle tasting event at a vineyard not far away with live music. What a great experience! We had ravioli and cheese plates with fresh truffle – so delicious. The whole atmosphere was very Italian with 2 musicians playing the piano accordion and singing traditional Italian songs. An American winemaker was working there so we got lots of info from her on the wines we were tasting. Apparently it was one of a number of similar events being held across that part of Tuscany that Sunday. 


The last day we visited Lucca which was only 20 minutes drive away. We had visited briefly in 2001 with the girls but I was keen to go back as I remembered it being a really pleasant walled town with several prominent towers. 


Next blog – another major deviation from our plan ….. Sardinia.

Lake Garda

It was a toss between going to Bologna and Florence or going to Lake Garda in the east of the Lombardy region. Lake Garda won as we can go to Florence/Bologna on the way back north again. We left Lake Como by 7 am on Sunday morning as we knew there would be very few trucks on the road and it was early enough to avoid the tour buses on the narrow road beside the lake.

We had been given the name of a campground on the lake shore between Desenzano and Sirmione, the well known area on a narrow peninsula that juts out into the lake guarded by a classic fort. The campground was huge and set up as a holiday destination campground but the facilities were good and we managed to get a lakefront campsite again. 

Sirmione



Lots of tourists especially as it was Sunday afternoon. We climbed to the top of the tower for a great view of the surrounding area.

Desenzano was a pleasant town fronting the lake. We visited the weekly market but found it dominated by cheap clothing – not much interesting in the way of food.

We also drove up the western side of the lake as far as Salo and Gargnano which is touted as being the prettiest village on the lake.The drive out was not at all scenic- industrial and other development all the way. Salo was good for a lunch stop with a lot of restaurants fronting the lake. Gargnano was OK but nothing like the villages on the other lakes. 

Salo


Gargnano


We did manage to find a good restaurant one night with a beautiful outlook onto the lake.



Delicious warm octopus and leek salad.

Overall we probably spent a couple of nights too many at Lake Garda – it didn’t have the interest for us that the other lakes had and it is much more developed. However, we were able to get up to date on some admin like servicing the trailer – it was no mean feat finding someone to do it. We toyed with playing golf one day but the temperatures were around 30 degrees plus by late afternoon. The weather has certainly changed from the cooler sometimes wet weather we had up until Lake Garda.

Next stop – on the coast near Viareggio (north west of Pisa) to meet up with Anna for a long weekend.