Florence is Hot

OK, fast-forward a month. We are back from Italy now, and the remainder of the trip was a pleasant blur filled with new taste and sight sensations. After our last post, we never regained access to Internet access long enough to post or upload many photos, so we gave up the blogging experiment and focused on enjoying our trip.

Even as a tourist, I agreed with this...

I’ll post more on the trip over the coming months. I would like to review the places we stayed and pass along some tips on places to go and things to see that fall outside most guidebooks. So, stay tuned. And, to continue where my previous post left off…

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“Florence is hot.” That’s all we could really get out of Isolina, the lovely woman that was taking care us while we were staying at Casale a Poggiano, near Montepulciano. This came out at another of the wonderful breakfasts Isolina prepared for us before we wandered off in our Fiat Panda to explore another fragrant vineyard or hill-top town. That day, we were pretty adamant about heading for Florence, which was about two hours away by autostrada (fast toll road), and spending the day looking around. In addition, some friends from Memphis, who had been in Florence a few weeks before, had cached a surprise for us in the old part of town and sent some cryptic instructions about how to find it, so we were eager to locate it and find out what it was.

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After we got to Florence, we really found out what Isolina was talking about. Florence was hot. Very hot this time of year. We had arrived in the middle of a little heat wave, and temps in Florence were above 41 Celsius, with Rome hitting 44. The stillness of the countryside, which I had really enjoyed, translated into a lack of a breeze in Florence, which made walking around an exercise of staying in the shade as much as possible.

The heat notwithstanding, Florence is, of course, lovely. We parked at one of the monster underground car parks located in the ring around the old city and hoofed it toward the Uffizi (probably the top gallery) and the Ponte Vecchio, near to where our surprise was cached. The line at the Uffizi was way too long to handle, so we moved on over the bridge to find the cached surprise. Unfortunately, someone had found it before we got there (it was a little bottle of grappa tied up with wire behind a street sign that backed up to a wall), but we consoled ourselves (and cooled off) at a wine tasting place nearby. There, we discovered the pleasures of Brunello de Montalcino, plus gourmet vinegar and all of the different things you can mix with it. The whole place was a yummy meat, cheese, wine, and vinegar treat, and we brought a few things from that store home with us.

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We spent the rest of the day roaming around Florence, eating, checking out the sites, trying to stay cool, eating sorbetto, and trying to figure out where we parked the car. Dinner that night was in Montepulciano, and we should have gone to Pienza again, but seeing Montepulciano after the tourists are (mostly) gone was worth it.

The next day was spent traveling the back roads up past San Gimignano, skirting Florence and Siena, and heading toward our next stop in northern Tuscany, deep in the Garfagnana region, inside a tiny village named Petrognano, beside a rushing mountain river, and beyond that, a trip to see friends half-way across the country.

Click here to view all of our photos of Florence

Tuscany, Wandering

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Yesterday, after a wonderful breakfast outside, overlooking endless rows of grapes, we left our base of the farmhouse near Montepulciano and headed into the countryside, letting the Fiat Panda point us to where it wanted to go. We wandered north, close to Siena, stopping along the way to buy groceries at a local market and eating a picnic lunch in a park in the tiny hamlet (far off the tourist path and with a name I have to look up when I get back to the States). Walking through the town, we happened into a tiny, empty 13th-century church containing exquisite art – and no tourists in sight.

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After that, we tasted (and bought) some wine at a local estate and moved on to Montalcino, where we ate sorbetto and walked the town, taking in the views of the valleys below in the changing colors of the afternoon light. Next, it was over the mountains and down to Pienza for a late dinner (gnocchi with pesto for Kath and lamb for me).

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Today, we made a beeline for Siena to experience a larger town. With any town containing more than 2000 or more people, a particular pattern occurs: You park your car outside the city walls and walk up, up, up into the city, and then when you have seen what you have come to see, you try to remember where you parked your car so you can go out the right city gate. The larger the city, the harder this is, as the car parking areas are more crammed with cars, you have to park further away from the city walls, you have to walk further uphill once you get into the city to get to the central square, or piazza, and it can be more confusing to get out.

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We saw many interesting things in Siena, including the Duomo (they started a major expansion in the 14th century, but the plague stopped them and they had to later incorporate their work in the surrounding buildings) and the St. Katherine Church. After spending the day in Siena, we drove down to Montepulciano for dinner. The walk from the car park up to the Piazza was exhausting, though, and we couldn’t really enjoy a lot of the excellent architecture for being so tired of walking up and down the very vertical town.

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Tomorrow, Florence!

See all of our photos of southern Tuscany

From the Amalfi Coast to Montepulciano

The Amalfi Coast left us wanting more. From tiny towns stitched into the steep, rocky hillsides that plunged into the blue sea, to the island of Capri erupting from the water like a dagger toward the sky, to roads hugging the mountains curving around crevasses and dropping into terraces of green, we took away indelible scenes that we will remember.

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We spent our first full day here looking around Positano. We had to take the bus over from where we were staying, up on a hill in Priano (the next town over), and we strolled the V-shaped Positano, taking it all in. Unless you are on the main road, everything along the Amalfi Coast is vertical, which means a lot of walking up and down, moving from stairs to moderate hills, and then back to stairs again, with every step down meaning another step up. You begin to quickly estimate the exhaustion level of every destination as soon as you spy it. On the good side, there is an incredible view waiting for you in almost every place you would stop to catch your breath.

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The next day, we headed to Positano early to catch the ferry to Capri. The ferry ride over was calm along the coast, but as soon as you rounded the corner to the Bay of Naples, the water become very choppy, even with almost no wind and clear skies. Once in the harbor, we took the funiculare up to Capri Town and found a supermarket. Gathering enough for a picnic lunch, we sauntered up the hill, looking for a shady place to eat, one with a view. Two exhausting hours later, we found ourselves above the town, looking down on the harbor and the distant mainland. We should have take the bus, or at least brought a map with us, but the view was stunning as we ate on the stairs in the shadow of a mountain, under the gaze of Mary, built into a grotto near the location of a late-1800s sighting. We wandered around Anacapri for a couple of hours and then took the bus back down to Capri and then walked down the hill to the harbor for the trip back to Positano.

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Our 12th anniversary was the following day, so we took it easy. We explored a beach in Priano and ate dinner in a very nice place, located just down the hill from our hotel (Casa Columba).

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On the drive to Tuscany, we made a stop south of Naples to check out Herculanium, a Roman town buried in scalding mud when Vesuvius exploded in 79 AD. Herculanium is more preserved than the more famous Pompeii, so there is more to see. It is also a smaller site, something you can see in a couple of hours, which is all the time we had to spend.

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Many of the frescos were still visible. Some of them looked touched up, but others had to be original to the period. Perhaps most amazing was the charred 2000 year old wood, visible throughout the town, like in old staircases and in beams stuck in walls. Some of these ancient charred timbers were still holding up doorways. They let you wander all over the site, pretty much, and you can get amazing close to some very old things.

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We made it to our Tuscan farmhouse, on a hill several kilometers from Montepulciano, before sunset and then headed to a nearby town for dinner. We are the only guests here, and it feels like we have a manor, surrounded by vineyards and gleaming towns on the rims of hills across the surrounding valleys, all to ourselves. I hope our fortune holds, as we head into surrounding country around to explore and discover.

See all of our photos of the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and Herculanium

A Sight Beyond Words, While Stuffed with Pizza

I’m writing this from the comfortable confines of a small hotel on the Almalfi Coast, in central Italy, located in the tiny town of Praiano, roughly in this location. It took us about 24 hours, door-to-door, including a few hours in Montecassino so I could check out the terrain of the WWII battle there that I’ve been fascinated with since reading the excellent book, The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson.

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We are in an exquisitely beautiful spot, and I’m enjoying a free wifi signal from a nearby house under a perfect blanket of stars, dimmed only by the light from my laptop screen.

I’ll post some photos soon, as we pass the next few days exploring the area. For now, we are just exhausted from the trip and looking to get our strength back tomorrow.

The Spirit is In the Land

I’m finding it hard to leave.

I feel like I just got to Australia and gotten back into the groove of life at La Perouse, and I’m being ripped away, back to a life of work, responsibility, and (this time of year, at least) cold weather. It will be good to see my friends and family again, but I feel that it is only taking place as a trade for other friends and family.

The last few days have been a buzz of activities, occasionally interrupted but the creeping sadness of good-byes. We explored the southern head of the entrance to Sydney Harbor, made a huge gumbo pot using some file powder I brought from home (there is no file powder in Australia, or decent BBQ sauce, for that matter), enjoyed a wonderful send-off feed at Auntie Lois’s, and tip-toed through tearful good-byes on our way to the airport today.

Just when I thought I could put the sadness behind me for a little while, I came across an art installation bridge in my airport terminal, featuring a traditional farewell in the Dhurawal language, done by some folks from the local Aboriginal community, where we’ve been spending most of our time. Now, I’m enjoying a $6 VB, looking out at a 747, and wondering about the meaning of it all.

See you on the other side of the pond.

Little Bay to Maroubra Beach

Yesterday, I walked from Little Bay to Maroubra Beach, along Sydney’s south coast. I didn’t bring a camera or phone with me, so no pictures, but I did see some amazing sights, and I was able to travel through some areas I’d never been through before when I lived here.

Along the way, I counted 5 rusting engine blocks that had been dumped into the sea and were resting on rocks below the cliffs, including one very old-looking straight 6. Hopping the rocks south of Malabar, I came across a collection of petrafied shells being revealed from their sandstone encasement.

In my “I really don’t have a deathwish” part of this trip, I actually (and accidentally) walked behind the target area of a live target range just south of Maroubra. I was a little lost in the scrub when I heard some pops and emerged to see the red flags at the corners of the rifle range. I ducked back in the scrub and found another way north.

Maroubra Beach, one of my favorites in Sydney, was pretty full when I strolled onto the sand, and the surfers were out in force, with some decent summer waves and a gentle off-shore breeze.

Circular Quey to Parramatta and Back

Larry and I headed into the center of Sydney yesterday, looking for some enlightenment and adventure.

The first stop was the Australian Museum, beside historic Hyde Park, in downtown Sydney. There, we saw very cool skeleton exhibits, some interesting 1920s movies and photography from New Guinea, and a relatively out-dated look at Aboriginal Australians. Among the artifacts on display was a boomerang made in La Perouse marked “Artist Unknown,” even though a 20-minute bus trip with the artifact to talk to the local community here would likely positively identify it as a Timbery-made tourist item.

We then hopped the ferry to Parramatta, which is upstream on the Parramatta River and the furthest place you can go by ferry from Circular Quey. The trip was similar to what I remember from 7 years ago, except the ferry was much hotter when we left Sydney Harbor, and there was no breeze. The trip back to the city on the air-conditioned train was a relief.

Read the Blog of Larry

For a more detailed version of what we have been doing in Australia, be sure to check out Larry Lambert’s blog.

http://larry.mazzy.com

He has a lot more patience for blogging via an iPhone than I do, and his perspective is a valuable one for anyone seeking a more complete picture of our trip.

He also took this photo of me with my new best (metal) friend in Goulburn.

From Wine to Beer in Goulburn

After visiting the wineries northeast of Yass, we arrived in Goulburn a little “wined out.” So for a slight change of pace, we checked out the Old Goulburn Brewery in the hope of a wee bit of ale.

The brewery claims to be the oldest in Australia, and it definitely looks the part. The importance of beer to Aussies cannot be overstated, and it has been this way for a very long time. One of the first steam engines to arrive in Australia was put to work helping to brew beer in Goulburn.

The self-tour was a little underwhelming, but the ale tasting at the end was worth it. Here I am, standing at the bar, enjoying a schooner of the good stuff.

More Wineries

We visited several wineries on our way back to Sydney from Cooma. All of them were interesting, in one way or another.

One place used an old, one-room schoolhouse as its cellar door, which ironically was where the local Temperance Society used to meet in the 1920s. (Photo below.)

At another place, we met the winemaker, who was an Italian immigrant who came to Sydney in the 1950s with his brother, operated a tailor shop with him until the 80s, and then picked up winemaking, partially because it reminded him of his grandmother and the old country.

We are having a lot of fun exploring the Southern Tablelands region of NSW.

Visiting Canberra Wineries

After returning to Cooma for the night, we headed north through Canberra toward some frankly amazing wineries.

The first one we rolled up to contained a rural restaurant, smokehouse, and cellar door, all in one. Poachers Pantry, the food half of the business, features smoked kangaroo, duck, emu, and chicken, while the winery, Wily Trout, offers some excellent reds, particularly the Merlot.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch in their garden, under a cloudless sky, beneath umbrellas, cooled by soft breezes.

Circling Kosciuszko

We spent the first day of 2009 circling the highest mountain in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko, via the Alpine Way. With stops in Jindabyne, Threadbo, Tom Groggio, as well as countless overlooks and curiosities, we really gained an appreciation for the Snowy Mountains and the interior area of the south coast of New South Wales.

This shot, taken from Scammels Lookout, shows the Snowy Mountain range from the west.

Rambling Down the South Coast of New South Wales

Yesterday, we set off down the Grand Pacific Highway, south out of Sydney and around Botany Bay and into the Southern Highlands, searching for adventure (and, eventually, a hotel room, as we hadn’t booked anything ahead, and it is smack dab in the middle of the High Season here, with New Years Day around the corner).

This photo was taken in the town of Kangaroo Valley, looking across the local cricket grounds and up to the escarpment that surrounds the river valley.

Collecting Wood for Carving

Uncle Greg needed more wood for carving shields and nulla-nullas, so Bunda and I went up into the scrublands around La Perouse with him, looking for appropriately-sized native trees.

It took us several hours to cut up the wood and haul it back to the car. The day grew hot, even in the shade, and the flies easily found us once we started sweating.

Eventually, though, we hauled several useful logs back to the car for the trip back to the “mish.” Once we got back, Uncle Greg wasted no time turning them into replica weapons, with Larry helping.

Woodcarving on the Mish

While I went for a swim down at the beaches around La Perouse, Larry and Uncle Greg sat beneath a tree beside Auntie Margie’s house, on a gentle slope enjoying a pleasant breeze, carving a shield and nulla-nullas.

In this shot, Larry is using a piece of broken glass (of which there is a lot on the Mission, or “Mish”) to shave smooth the wood on the outside of the shield while Uncle Greg is shaping the point of the nulla-nulla.