Leaving Bardolino, we called in to take a look at Verona. It was lovely to be back where our visit to Italy started in mid-May, and with much better weather this time! We debarked the coach at the Victory Bridge and walked over it, passed the sheep on a column that reminds how Verona’s initial wealth arose, and down to the Porta Borsari, the remaining Roman gate into the oldest part of the city. From there we walked to the Piazza Erbe, and being Sunday it was devoid of market stalls. This allowed a good look at the major features of the piazza: the Venetian Lion on its column, the painted merchants’ house and the fountain, amongst other things like the loggia of the law courts. Between the Piazza Erbe and Piazza Signori, we went into the courtyard of the Palazzo della Regionale, under the Torre dei Lamberti, with its lovely arcades and red and white bands of brick and stone in the walls.
The Palazzo della Regionale
We had a look round the Piazza Signore and its significant buildings, with notice given to the trench showing the paved surface of the Roman forum and Roman foundations for a much later building. From there, we called in at the tombs of the Scaligeri family, through the Piazza Viviana with its statue of Garibaldi to Casa di Guiletta (over-rated and over-grafittied). Along the via Stella to Piazza San Nicholo and out into Piazza Bra behind the ‘wing’ of the Arena. Dismissed for lunch, we headed back to our former apartment and the cafe nearby, less touristy and cheaper!
The wing of the Arena
Later we met up with the group again and headed back to the coach. We drove past the Theatre and the Roman Bridge, before heading for Vincenza, passing fields of hay bales and sweet corn.
Once again, we approached the town via the Rotunda, but did not go up the hill to the pilgrimage church and viewing platform. We were dropped off at the end of the main street, near the Palladian House, opposite the Olympian Theatre. We walked up the main street, along which the ‘Palladian Window’ was explained – not a window so much as an archway with rectangular spaces on each side, defined by classical pillars.
The Palladian window (yellower building)
We were taken round the main sights that we had seen on our previous visit – the Casa d’Oro, the street with the Venetian 12th Century house, a Romanesque 24th century house and an early Palladio design of the 15th century. We walked to the end of that street, which ends in a gate and river, and up the next street. This started with a Palladio building that was offset to the curve of the road to catch the morning sun! Next along the street were two more Venetian houses of the 12th and 13th centuries, and the 15th century house of the chap who really wrote the story of Romeo and Juliet – Luigi da Porto. Finally, the late Palladio palazzo that now houses the Palladio Museum.
The Palladio house, offset for morning sun and photographed in the afternoon
Back on the main street, we looked at the City Hall and saw the tower that marks the other end of the main street. Moving into the piazza, on the other side of the City Hall we had a view of the statue of Palladio and of the Basilica for which he designed the facade when the old one fell apart after an earthquake. We had some free time for a gelato, it was a hot day, before reboarding the coach and heading for Treviso.
Our Villa hotel is not actually in Treviso, but set in a slightly more rural area. We went for a walk to the back of the property and ran across a grass snake – no more walks round the estate for me. It is a very elegant Villa, and we had a large room at the top left of the main building.
The Hotel Villa Contarini Nenzi
Dinner that evening was in the Villa restaurant, housed in the former stables.
The former stables
The following day, Monday 17th, we had an excursion to Bassano del Grappa, up in the hills north of Treviso. It is (or was) a walled city and has a famous wooden bridge. We entered through one of the gates, and walked along a street called Viale dei Martiri. There were regularly spaced trees beside the road along the edge of a steep slope, each holding a noose, a name and some flowers. The Nazi occupation hung some locals here in reprisal for partisan attacks, hence road of martyrs.
We walked through the town and its Piazzas to the Ponnte Vecchio, currently under restoration. At one end of the Bridge is a museum, the Museo degli Alpini, commemorating the Italian Alpine troops. Everything was in Italian, so I am not sure of the whole story but it housed uniforms, weapons and photographs. We had some free time to explore and have lunch. We found a good view down onto the bridge from the Palazzo Sturm, itself a museum.
Ponte Vecchio of Bassano
A small cafe was found on the shady side of a street for a cool salad lunch. We walked up to the top of the hill to see the Castle and Duomo – to find that it was closed for lunch. Back down the hill, and we met the others for a tour of a grappa museum, where we learnt all about the distillation of grappa. Then it was back on the coach and we were driven to Treviso itself. The walls of Treviso still stand, though not quite as impressive as Lucca, and it is famed for its canals running through the town and round the walls, though not as extensive a system as Venice. We had a walk through the town to the fish market, on a little island in the canal, and to the Piazza Signori. We had some free time, which we spent exploring the narrow streets towards and into the Duomo.
The fish market in Treviso
Our final dinner with the rest of the tour was again in the former stables. The next morning we said goodbye as they all drove off to airports or further time in Venice. We had an extra two nights in the Palazzo. That day we relaxed, only walking down the road for lunch at a local trattoria. The second day, we got ourselves into Treviso and spent the day tracing the canals, exploring the streets and walking round part of the walls.
Canal scene in Treviso
That was the end of the Italian holiday; the next morning I flew to Graz, in Austria, for a week on my own.
A few things happened on the way to Lake Garda. We travelled over the hills from Lucca, passing the occasional hilltop village or valley spanning road-bridge, and down into the Po Valley. Our first stop was a visit to the Ferrari Museum, in Maranello. Well worth the visit if one happens to be interested in Ferraris, or even if one isn’t! There were lots of lovely red cars, a silver Ferrari 812 Superfast, and one blue Ferrari Pista. If you are invited and are prepared to pay, they will use colours other than red, apparently. There was a display of Ferrari race cars, too.
Ferrari F1 race cars
From there we went to a cheese farm. Dairy cows were kept in concrete floored yards, with shade, and fed harvested alfalfa. They don’t get to graze in fields, in case the milk isn’t up to certain standards. Poor cows. We were shown the parmesan stacked to mature in a climate controlled barn, with an automated ‘robot’ that turns and cleans the wheels of cheese regularly. The different colours are cheeses of different age.
Just across the yard was another barn, housing the owner’s collection of tractors, Masseratis and other collector cars. It made a unique environment in which to partake of our lunch – a local type of flat bread roll, toasted slightly, with our choice of hams and cheeses inside as a sandwich, washed down with local wine. Consequently, I slept most of the way to Lake Garda.
Our hotel was in Bardolino. It was a fairly anonymous, international resort style place with bars, spas and swimming pools, quite comfortable once we got the air-conditioning to work. Technically, the hotel is in Bardolino, but the ‘old town’ and ferry wharf are a twenty-three minute walk away (and we walk fast). However, we did find a small village centre and convenience store only 10 minute in the other direction.
The morning after, we headed out on the coach to Salo, a quaint small town across the lake. Very pretty and relaxing, we had an hour to explore.
Next, we were off to a wonderful lunch and wine tasting at Redaelli de Zinis in Calvagese della Riviera. A jasmine hung veranda, a long table, five wine glasses per setting and a huge meal spread out over a couple of hours. Wonderful.
On the way back to the hotel, the coach stopped to let off those of us who wanted to explore Lasize. This is a walled medieval town, with a castle and some narrow streets, little piazzas and a ferry wharf on Lake Garda. I enjoyed looking round. The castle is privately owned, so we couldn’t do more than catch a glimpse between the trees. The walls were built in the 14th century, possibly on older foundations, there were 10th century walls and a Roman era settlement.
The castle at Lasize
After poking about for a while we took a ferry to Bardolino, had a quick look round, and walked from there back to the hotel. Only a very light meal that evening!
Saturday was a free day. We decided to take a fast ferry to Sirmione – which turned out to be a good decision, we were there ahead of the crowds that followed us by coach and ferry from all points. We found a tourist office and got a map, and walked up the length of the island to the ‘Grottoes of Catullo’. These are the ruins of a huge Roman era villa, built on the hill at the north end of the island/promontory with great views up the lake. The remains are mostly the huge buttresses needed to provide level flooring for the villa as it jutted out to the north.
Arches to support the floor above
Obviously, over the centuries vast amounts of the stone used in the villa have been robbed out for use elsewhere. There is very little left of the villa itself, only its footprint in the substantial remaining support structure. The artist’s impressions are impressive!
After over an hour walking through the ruins, we needed an hour in the cafe to re-hydrate. Then we walked down to the lake side for a short paddle, then back to the township of Sirmione. We found a shady waterside lunch-spot for a salad and more water. Sirmione has a castle, the Rocca Scaligera, built in several phases from 1277. What would have been the residential/barracks are not open to the public, but I was able to visit the walls and tower (holding my acrophobia firmly in check). The moat connects to the Lake and is very clear, fish could be seen in it!
The Rocca Scaligeri
Finally, we walked a little further, found a church and some quaint streets, then retired into an air-conditioned gelataria until our ferry was due. Back to Bardolino and walk to the hotel. We soaked in the swimming pool for a bit after that.
There was another well-catered group dinner that night, at which a bit too much red wine was imbibed, along with a vegetable strudel with pea puree, a crepe with mushrooms, a sea bass fillet (with some veggies) and then a selection of dessert treats from the buffet. I had to refuel after walking about 13.6 kilometres!
We moved on to Treviso the next day.
We arrived in Lucca in the late afternoon of the 9th June, after a busy day sailing the Cinque Terre. Consequently once our bags had been delivered to our room, we left to find a restorative aperitif. A short stroll down the road from our hotel (conveniently located just inside the town walls) was a quiet piazza with a handy bar (Piazza Cittadella). We sat outside taking in the surroundings with a glass of prosecco and some snack food. There was a statue of Puccini in the piazza and the entrance to the Puccini museum, as well as a gelataria and a restaurant. We had a group dinner later, four courses and wine, followed by a gentle stroll along Via San Paolino to the Piazza San Michele (which used to be the Roman Forum, of course the Romans were here…) and back to the hotel.
Monday morning involved a pasta and pizza making demonstration. Eventually I snuck out and read a crime novel on my mobile. However I still got a certificate and helped eat the results. Back in Lucca, we walked up to the Amphitheatre (Amfiteatro), or rather the ring of buildings outlining where an amphitheatre used to be. There are still a few bits of the original structure, but mostly it is just the shape that has been preserved. It is best seen from an aerial photograph, so I bought a postcard.
The Piazza Amfiteatro and its ring of buildings
We walked past the Piazza San Frediano a church with lovely blue mosaic on the facade (13th to 14th century), so I dropped in for a quick look around. The church has some relief images on some in-floor memorials that have worn down over the centuries – now cordoned off. It also has some splendid 16th century frescoes and 17th century paintings. I love the idea of Saint Fred. Saint Frediano started a church here in the sixth century, and he is said to have diverted the course of the River Serchio to alleviate flooding.
External Mosaic: The Ascension of Christ the Saviour
Wandering semi-randomly through the streets we noted several towers. Some of these are bell towers associated with churches, while others are vanity towers built by noble families to express their wealth or dominance. One of them, Torre Guinigi, has a couple of trees growing from the top. It was a long climb to the top and I’m told that the stairs are not for the acrophobic, so I did not attempt it!
We walked through narrow streets, surprising little piazzas and past a fair number of churches and very old buildings. It was quite charming. We finished up in the Piazza Cittadella again, for aperitif and a salad, chatting to other travellers.
The following day we had an excursion to Florence (Firenze). It was a long slow drive with lots of traffic including a fleet of buses from the nearby cruise ship port. We arrived, were dropped off beside the River Arno and walked into the Piazza Santa Croce. Here we entered a leather and gold shop – it has loos – and a showing of gold and leatherwear. The jewellers make pendants from ancient Roman coins – they showed us one with a Julius Caesar coin, and one (very rare) with Mark Anthony on one side and Cleopatra on the other. I was impressed…
Our walking tour took us past a curved side street following the side of the Firenze Amfiteatro (but it is not so well defined as the Lucca one), to the Piazza Signori. It was crowded, hot and sunny. Scaffolding obscured much of the palazzo, but we could see the copy of the David across it. The Piazza Duomo was worse with many tourists. We admired the Baptistry doors (the doors to Paradise) and headed for the Academia to see the David. There was a huge queue. We had both seen the David before in far better and less crowded conditions, so we took our leave of the group and went to find cool shade, water and lunch.
Piazza Duomo with crowds and lens distortion
We explored the back streets, the leather market, crossed the Ponte Vecchio and walked up to the Pitti Palace, on the way buying various leather goods and a bit of jewellery. Here we paused for another cool drink (the temperature was in the mid-thirties Celsius) before heading slowly back towards the Piazza Santa Croce. We had some spare time so did a quick walk round inside the church (Santa Croce) where we admired Giotto frescoes, Donatello sculptures and the monuments to many famous Italians. We could have spent much longer there. The cloister was a haven of green after a day of cobbles and pavements.
Back on the coach we were taken up the hill overlooking Firenze, to take photographs.
Back in Lucca, there was time to walk up to San Frediano for an aperitif and accompaniments before a light dinner in Piazza Cittadella.
On Wednesday most of the group went to Pisa, we had been there before and preferred to stay in Lucca. I thoroughly enjoyed a long walk round the top of the city walls, wide and sturdy enough for an avenue of trees.
Atop Lucca’s walls
We saw many interesting features of the town, the local prison, a collection of art-works featuring dryads, a cardboard gorilla, the gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner, the botanical gardens and the stream that runs through the eastern side of town. We dropped down off the wall to visit the cathedral, with its mis-matched upper columns on the facade. The story goes that there was a competition run for the contract to produce the pillars and each stone mason sent in a sample pillar. The city kept and used them all without actually granting the contract or paying for the pillars.
The cathedral facade
Nearby is the Chiesa Santi Giovanni e Reparata. This was fascinating as the requirement to put in better physical support for the church led to an archaeological dig and discovery of different phases of development of the site. The earliest is from the Roman period (mosaic floors from the first century BC) then through various stages of church buildings from the 4th century, 8th , 9th and 10th centuries, with the current church dating from the 12th century, and the dome from 1393. The interior of the church allows access to the under-croft and viewing of some of these remains.
Under the Chiesa
Back up on the wall, we had lunch under the trees on the Baluardo San Colombano. There are 10 Baluardi or bastions along the wall. These are large, big enough to form small parks, and a restaurant with tables shaded by the trees was very attractive.
Shady lunch spot
After lunch we completed the ring of the walls, returning to our starting point near the Porta S. Anna. I continued, as I wanted to get to see some of the villas within the town. I started with the Palazzo Pfanner, built by a German brewer who clearly made a fortune brewing beer here. I loved the grand staircase, which reminded me of Escher prints of impossible stairs.
The Palazzo Pfanner staircase
I also visited the Museo Nationale di Villa Guinigi, with its many displays of finds from around the town and lots of religious art. The villa has two deep cool loggias, one on each side of the building.
Villa Bottini was not open as it is used for exhibitions only, but the grounds were accessible, so I strolled around. There is a ‘folly’ in the back garden that looks like a collection of bits from various periods, found and put together for effect.
Finally, I found the Palazzo Mansi, also part of the Museo Nationale, near the hotel. This is a real extravaganza of a villa. It has really over-the-top decor and lots of paintings. In fact four rooms of art (82 paintings from the Medicci collection) were sent by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1848, in order to provide local artists with examples of various styles. The other rooms seem to be as redecorated in the 17th century for an important wedding, and there was a costume display as well.
One of the bedrooms (1688)
That evening we went by coach to an olive oil plantation and vineyard, where we tasted olive oil and had yet another huge delicious meal! We left the next morning, for Lake Garda. I really loved Lucca, and could have stayed longer. Perhaps I will return some day.
Driving from Stresa to Genova (Genoa) was initially across the upper Po valley, and thus flat with lots of rice paddies. Then we headed into the beginnings of the Apenine mountains (or hills really, at this point), fairly close to the coast. Shortly we were driving through suburbs of apartment blocks and docks areas. We saw the remains of the road bridge that collapsed last year. Arriving at the ancient port area, we walked a little, passing a recreation of an old Genoan galleon, with a huge figurehead.
We were given time to find some lunch, then met up with our local guide for a walk through the old town, which is UNESCO World Heritage Listed. First however, we were back on the bus to go up a hill for an overview of the city. This was really a confusion of rooftops, although we could pick out some decorated facades.
Genova is heritage listed for the 35 (or more) palazzos surviving from the time of Genoa’s prosperity as a trading and shipping centre. Most of these face the main street, the Via Garibaldi, and look somewhat un-prepossessing from the outside, facing quite a narrow street. Much of the painted detail has faded! Inside, there are impressive stairways, frescoes and internal gardens. We were taken into the atriums of a couple of them. There were more palazzos facing Via Balbi, which extends from Via Garibaldi.
Entrance ceiling of a palazzo
The next day (Saturday, 8 June, 2019) we were up early and off on the bus to Santa Margherita. On arrival we were shepherded round the waterfront and up a short flight of steps to the forecourt of a small Chapel of St Erasmus. Here the congregation were putting together the elaborate crucifixes to be used in the Blessing of the Fleet, later in the day.
Santa Margherita – Crucifixes at St Erasmus
After admiring the fishing fleet, we retraced our steps to join a public ferry to go to the Abbey of St Fruttuoso –a small inlet around a point from Portofino, and past cliffs, sea caves and very isolated looking villas. The Abbey was founded to house the remains of St Fruttuosa, martyred in Spain in 259 AD, so I’m not sure why the remains were in Italy. The first surviving record of the Abbey dates to 984 AD –so it is pretty old, but has been rebuilt and expanded from time to time. Attacked by pirates, Saracens and storms, in 1200 it got some territory and became allied with the Doria family. They were allowed to bury their dead in the Crypt. In return they built a watch tower high above the cove (concealed by tarps and under restoration when we were there), and provided funds for the Abbey. Now the place attracts tourists and houses a collection of archaeological finds.
After an hour or so to explore the Abbey and its surrounds we were back on a ferry and heading for Portofino. This is a jet-set hang-out of the past, now over-run by tourists. To avoid the crowds we headed round the bay for a light lunch, then visited a church in the town, San Martino, and another Saint George, that is perched on a ridge between the Portofino bay and the route to the Abbey. We climbed even further along the ridge to the old castle, which was turned into an airy and sunny summer home for the British Consul in the early 20th century. It had a lovely over-view of Portofino.
Portofino from the castle
We ferried back to Santa Margherita and had a quick stroll round the old town before being picked up for the drive back to Genova.
On Sunday, we took a train to Monterossa, for a trip through the Cinque Terre. At Monterossa we walked round from the station to the old town, and explored a little, finding a church, an ossuary chapel, some shops and a vegetable garden, before boarding a ferry to Vernazza, the next town. There we had enough time to climb up to another old castle, now reduced to a viewing platform which gave a great view up the little valley. It was also easy to see how the heavy rains in 2011 had swept a mud slide through the town.
View over Vernazza
Back on the ferry, we stayed on board as it called at Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, small towns tucked into the coastline under towering hills.
We continued, passing a red rock cliff on our way to Porto Venere. This town sits on the mainland opposite the island of Palmaria, and was visited by Lord Byron and other romantic poets. There was a Byron’s grotto, a cave that inspired the poet, but unfortunately it has since collapsed. Swimmers still dive off the rocks. The town was a stronghold for the Genoan Navy, the walled town linked by further walls to the looming castle. Today, the waterside walls are part of narrow houses facing the harbour on one side and the internal street on the other. We walked through the old town gates and along the narrow street to the church at the promontory. Then back again to find some food, before meeting the rest of the party to ferry over to La Spezia.
From La Spezia we moved on to Lucca, on the way passing the famous Carrera marble quarries and shipping stockpiles.
The Albatross tour to the Italian Lakes and Tuscany tour began by us all gathering in the Lobby of the Michelangelo Hotel, near the Milan Central Station, and then boarding our coach to get up to Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. We had rooms in the hotel overlooking the Lake, so although there was a heat haze, it was a great view.
As soon as our bags were dragged into the room we were off, walking along the lake shore as far as the ‘old town’ of Stresa. We explored briefly then returned to the hotel. We met with the other travellers (28 in all) and our Tour Manager, Francine, for aperitifs in the Hotel. Later we walked to a small restaurant in Stresa for dinner. There were only tables of four, so the four single women sat together. The food was wonderful – pate, ravioli and goat’s cheese, veal and vegetables, and a semi-freddo with berry sauce accompanied by two bottles of wine between the four of us.
The next morning (Tuesday 4th June) we were coached to Domodossola, from where we got a train through the ‘Hundred Valleys’ to Locarno. Initially the train climbed up a steep mountainside past little villages with stone built houses (including stone rooves) and mixed growth forest. We went through a few tunnels, and moved along river valleys. Then there was a long descent into Switzerland and Locarno.
One of the Hundred Valleys
In Locarno we had an hour to feed ourselves lunch, so three of us raced down to the lake shore (still Lake Maggiore) for a light meal. Meeting back with the others, we discovered that the coach could not get to us because of a rock fall on the main road and the diversion being too narrow for the coach to negotiate. Therefore, all 29 of us climbed aboard a local bus to Ascona, a bit further down the lake. Ascona is a lovely little town, with a market that afternoon, and many boutiques. For some reason there were large monochrome plastic animals dotted about the town: a blue elephant, puce dogs, frogs in several colours, yellow meerkats and at least two large pink snails.
Puce dogs, or foxes?
The coach had managed to get to us, so we had a comfortable trip back to Stresa.
The following day (Wednesday 5th June) started with a boat trip across to Isola Bella, an island in the lake not far from Stresa. The Borromeo family constructed the island – initially a bare rock – and built a huge Palazzo and gardens, aiming for the appearance of a large boat. Not sure they achieved that, but it is certainly impressive.
We were guided round the Palazzo, seeing reception rooms, some of which had large four-poster beds tucked into alcoves, a throne room, a study, a blue gathering room and a pink ball room. Underneath, there were rooms decorated to look like sea caves, which were remarkably cool. We did not go upstairs, as those rooms are still used by the Borromeo family for their summer holidays!
Outside, we strolled through the terraced gardens and admired the white peacocks.
Isola Bella garden
We had lunch in Stresa, and were back on the coach in the late afternoon for a trip to Lake Orta. This lake is smaller, nestled into steep, forested hills, with an island in it dedicated to Saint Guilio. The island is completely built over with a church, convent (cloistered Benedictine nuns) and other buildings. When we arrived a wedding party was just leaving. The Church has the body of the Saint embalmed in the Crypt, and has frescoes and a pulpit carved from an unusual green marble. We walked round the island on the one street it has, admiring the quaint buildings, flowers and archways.
Isola San Giulio
From the island, we were taken to the village of Orta San Guilio, where we admired the main piazza and elderly buildings, and ate gelato. The boat took us back to our embarkation point and we returned to Stresa for a late meal.
Orta San Guilio
On the Thursday we were taken to Lake Como. This was a longish drive so the tour manager talked about politics and religion… areas they are usually warned off. It was interesting. The road itself caused some alarming moments, being narrow and us in a wide bus. Fine until we met wide trucks. Our driver handled it all well. At Caddenabbia we transferred to a launch, which took us for a ride down the Lake to admire some exclusive villas and then across the lake to Bellagio, perched on the edge of the lake against a steep hill. We had a couple of hours to have lunch and explore, which we managed to do before the rain started. The town is clearly geared for tourists, lots of shops, cafes and restaurants.
Bellagio and a rainy Lake Como
We were back in Stresa in time for a relaxed aperitif on the waterfront before dinner in the piazza (it wasn’t raining there).
We arrived in Milan to be met by our chauffeur and ferried to our apartment in a very nice Mercedes sedan. We had to climb four flights of stairs lugging our cases to gain access to the apartment. After instructions from our landlady, we were able to unpack, run a load of washing and then set out to find the nearest supermarket – which was just through an alley and up the road. We dined at a nearby seafood restaurant, La Carbonaia a Mare. It was a trifle expensive, but we got a complementary glass of prosecco and appetizer (fried baby octopi). We ate rolled stuffed swordfish on a bed of apple ‘mirepoix’, with sides of asparagus and grilled vegetables. Yum.
On Thursday at last we had warm dry weather and blue skies. We had booked to do a tour that started with a viewing of the Last Supper then continued with a walking tour of central Milan. The Last Supper is painted onto the end wall of the refectory attached to the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie. It took Leonardo da Vinci four years to complete, because he worked a bit sporadically, and changed his mind a few times. It was experimental in that he did not use the normal fresco technique of putting colour onto fresh plaster and working quickly. Rather he worked on a completed wall using the paints he would normally use on canvas, unfortunately this experiment did not work and the colours began to fade after only a few decades. It was amazing to see it in person, and see the expressions of the disciples as Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed.
The Last Supper
On the opposite wall is a fresco of the Crucifixion, done by someone else, although Leonardo added a portrait of the Duke’s late wife and one of their children in the lower right corner. There are a couple of Dominican monks front and centre, as well! Over 500 years old, both end walls survived WWII bombing that blew out the side walls.
Round the side of the Church is a cloister with a pool of water. Known as the garden of the frogs, it has carved frogs at each corner of the pool.
The Garden of the Frogs
We walked briskly from there to the Sforza Castle, via Piazza Cardorna and the needle and thread sculpture in the colours of the metro lines. The Sforza Castle dates from medieval times, but required rebuilding now and again, so it is not all original. I have been wanting to have a closer look at the Castle since driving past it two years ago. The outer defences include the four towers and a moat, and each gate is protected by a drawbridge and portcullis. Inside the main gate is the largest courtyard, the parade ground, and beyond, through a further gate, are two smaller courtyards. One is surrounded by the Ducal apartments and the other has buildings used as barracks, but now both house museums. We walked through and out to look over the park, Parco Sempione, from a terrace.
Parco Semione and triumphal arch, built by Napoleon
We walked from the castle towards the Duomo, passing a statue of Garibaldi and pausing in the Piazza Cordusio that was once the Roman Forum and centre of the city. To one side is a Palazzo were Leonardo painted the portrait of the Duke’s young lover, with her pet ferret (or is it a stoat?). We turned off the main street to get to La Scala, the Opera Theatre, and the statue of Leonardo in Piazza Scala.
La Scala and a tram
From here we could walk through the Galleries, a magnificent shopping ‘arcade’ with a soaring roof and very exclusive shops, and out into Piazza Duomo, which was packed with tourists.
The Duomo and crowds
We walked round to the east side of the cathedral to see the huge stained glass windows of the apse, which is where the tour ended. Paolo mentioned the nearby University and its impressive building, so that is where we headed next. Red plaster and parked motorbikes outside, the courtyard inside was more peaceful.
Inside the main University building.
We retraced our steps towards the castle, having lunch near the University (insalata con tacchino) and getting a better shot of Garibaldi with the castle behind him.
Statue of Garibaldi
We walked around Parco Semione behind the castle, where we saw several groups of turtles sunning themselves beside the little lake. We walked back to the apartment, getting a little misdirected on the way, and later went out and found an osteria at which we had dinner (scallopine and a side of vegetables).
Friday was another beautiful clear warm day. We walked to the Duomo for our tour of the cathedral. Apparently the largest church in any Italian town is the Duomo, but in Milan, it is also a Cathedral (seat of a bishop). In fact, Milan’s cathedral is the third largest in Europe, after St Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Seville.
Inside, the huge space is divided by rows of columns, resembling a stone forest or perhaps the Hall of the Dwarven King in Moria, (to LOTR fans). The floor was intricately inlaid marble in several colours. The roof looked like it had mouldings on it, but we were told it was painted. Other sights included a statue of Saint Bartholomew a martyr who was skinned alive, holding his skin! Ugh!
Inside the Cathedral
Part of the tour was to go up to the roof-top. There were good views over Milan, but more impressive was the detail of the statues, gargoyles, buttresses and pointy things that formed the roof decorations. It was a long way up and I am not keen on heights, but well worth a good look around.
The Cathedral Roof
From there we had lunch up on a rooftop terrace of a department store across from the Cathedral, then to a church with an ossario decorated with the bones and skulls of plague victims. Grim, and I kept expecting a deluge of bones, as in the Paths of the dead (another LOTR reference, sorry, it was that sort of day).
San Bernadino alle Ossa
We walked further, to the Naviglio area where there is a small lake (the Dasara) and two canals branching off from it. All that remains of a more extensive system of canals used for transport in medieval times.
We returned to our apartment for a rest and then had to leap into action to get to the meeting point for our ‘Milan by Night’ walking tour. We marched swiftly to the fountain outside the Castle. It turned out that we were the only people booked, so we negotiated with the guide to do a different route to the usual Castle to Duomo walk (which we had done by day, earlier). We wandered through the Brere district, through restaurants and aperitif bars, past Churches and the National Art Gallery, housed in a former Palazzo.
The National Art Gallery.
Red brick on the outside, it had a lovely inner courtyard of porticoes and double-column arches. In the centre is a copy of a statue of Napoleon portrayed as a Greek god. The original is in Wellington’s house in London.
Inside the Palazzo
We walked past one of the old gates to the city and along an exclusive shopping street, looking at the art and architecture of the area. The very modern architecture was in complete contrast to the historic centre of Milan. Office buildings curved about a water feature, with another building (now IBM) fashioned in wood. Beyond, the residential ‘Vertical Forest’ is eye-catching.
Water, curves and the Vertical Forest beyond.
We walked past some of the buildings designed an architect on whose work our guide’s PhD was based. We finished up at the Central Railway Station – Art Deco meets Monumental with lots of Greek/Roman Gods, winged horses, signs of the Zodiac, high ceilings and tall portals.
Milan’s Central Station
We took the metro home, and finished the day with over 22,000 steps or about 17.5 kilometres walked.
The next day (Saturday first of June) we met a guide at Sforza Castle fountain again. There were a few more people this time, for a tour of the Castle itself, and entry to the Museums. The Castle was originally medieval, and was made into a Ducal residence in the renaissance, additional defences were added later by the Spanish during their occupation in the early 16th century. Then Napoleon destroyed much of the Spanish defences and part of the Castle, but this was rebuilt (in the renaissance style) in the 18th to 19th centuries.
Entering the Sforza Castle
The Castle is huge, with three large courtyards. The main entrance opens into the biggest of these, the parade ground, with the Spanish Hospital at one side. Through an inner gateway we reached the Duke’s courtyard and the Ducal Apartments, a further arch led to an inner courtyard and more buildings now museums round the courtyard. We were ushered into the Ducal Apartments and led through the museum of antiquities and tapestries to the Panelled Room. This was painted by Leonardo da Vinci to resemble an arbor of mulberry trees round the walls and across the ceiling. The same pattern is said to adorn the tapestries behind the figures in the Last Supper. It is hard to see now, but an audio-visual presentation defined and explained the room.
The Panelled Room, enhanced by projections
We looked at more of the museum, but were hurried along a bit to the Spanish Hospital, which houses the incomplete last work of Michelangelo, a Pieta, and also a bust of him taken from his death mask.
Michelangelo’s final Pieta
Here, the guide left us to continue exploring the Museums at our own pace, but we took a break for lunch. Restored, we searched the buildings to find the Museum of Musical Instruments which took us past many other interesting things, such as a Compass of Galileo Galilei. There were many instruments in the Museum, when we found it, including a glass xylophone as well as many violins, violas, and brass instruments.
Outside again, we found a structure that intends to eventually realise the arboreal vision of Leonardo.
Arbor in the castle
It was hot and we rested for some of the afternoon. Later, after a dinner nearby we wandered through some backstreets to find a piazza that is above the original Roman forum, and later, the remains of the Circus, used in Roman times for chariot races.
On Sunday (2nd June) we started the day with a walking tour of patisseries. We met our guide near the American Embassy (well guarded) and again we were the only customers. Our first stop was a nearby shop in the hands of the second generation producing lovely pastries and chocolates. We sampled quite a few. Our second stop was also in a traditional style of patisserie, Giovanni Gallio, featuring a marble topped curved counter and third generation (or was it more?) owner.
Stop three was at Serge, for crisp little rolls of pastry filled with our choice of flavoured ‘custard’. Lovely. Finally we went to ‘Iguio Manon’ a very popular pastry chef with a shop in his own name. Here we sampled four each of his little cakes/tarts/sweets.
We took the metro back to the apartment and digested. A little later we headed out again to La Scala, for a tour of the Theatre and Museum. Really interesting, the theatre follows the same pattern as other theatres in Italy, the Albert Hall, and the Opera in Vienna – lots of boxes round the stage.
The Museum held many pictures and items of memorabilia related to the Theatre, including Verdi’s piano, Napoleon’s sword and portraits of famous performers (including Maria Callas and Nureyev). Afterwards, we had a celebratory glass of Moscato and wandered home. We marked our final night in Milan with a wonderful meal in a Tuscan restaurant. The next day our second tour began.
The coach departed Ascoli Piceno in light rain and low visability. As we drove up into the hills we had glimpses of snow-covered mountains, and when we stopped for a break just before entering the Gran Sasso National Park, the rain stopped and clouds lifted. It was not sunny, but was bright as we drove above the tree-line and across the Apennines. There were great views of rocky, snowy peaks, carpets of wild flowers, and more rocks. We stopped at a wider section of road for photographs.
Snowy mountains in Gran Sasso National Park
We stopped for lunch at a mountain village, Santa Stefano, which is being restored by a hotel consortium. It is certainly a lovely village, full of twists and turns, beautiful stone buildings on top of each other and interesting nooks and crannies.
Soon after leaving, having had a beautiful meal, we descended into forest and hills. From the highway we could see hilltop villages with look-out towers, and no apparent roadways between them, although these could well have been hidden among the trees. As we neared Spoleto, we began to see cleared fields, crops and orchards. Spoleto has a huge fortress up on a hilltop, with the old town below it. Our hotel (rather ordinary after the Palazzo in Ascoli Picena) was on the edge of the old town. We had a fair amount of free time in here over the next few days. In that time we found a Roman arch, erected to commemorate the deaths (three years apart) of the sons of Emperor Tiberias. The footings of the arch are now three feet or more below the level of the street, one side has been excavated to show this.
Further up the hill, and the next morning, we had a good view of the Duomo, which has some lovely frescoes inside.
Around the hill under the fortress is the old Roman aqueduct, which has a path next to it, a bit below the level of the water channel – not sure if that makes it a via-aqueduct. Unfortunately the path is closed, so we could not walk across the gorge.
The other really interesting Roman relic we looked at was the floor of a Roman villa, discovered underneath the Town Hall. The mosaics are practically complete, showing the lay-out of an affluent town-house, or at least the ground floor!
Casa Romana, Spoleto
Spoleto had a couple of lovely piazzas, just right for sitting with an aperitif in the evening (or would have been if it wasn’t raining), remains of a Roman Theatre, a long covered Medieval walkway leading to a monastery just out of town, and a complex system of elevators and escalators mostly underground, leading up and down the hill, in the caverns of which some Roman remains were unearthed.
We had the best view of Spoleto when we were leaving town- with the fortress and aqueduct above the town.
While staying in Spoleto we had a trip to Assisi, which I was keen to see, as I had been given a book about St Francis as a child and had not managed to visit up until now. We passed several more hill towns on the way, and Assisi followed the same pattern of Medieval old town on the hill-top – but the differences were the huge Franciscan complex of Cathedral and monastery on the very edge of town, and a church further out again, originally reconstructed by St Francis for the use of the poor, and since enlarged with the smaller church in the crypt. We were dropped off just below the Monastery, and walked up to meet our guide and be shown through the Basilica.
The Basilica of St Francis
There is a lower church and an upper church, representing the life on earth and hope of resurrection. All was beautifully decorated with frescoes of the life of St Francis and of Christ. Some in the lower church were by Giotto, and bore a striking resemblance to those of Padova. Down below the lower church, we were able to visit the tomb of St Francis. I found it all a very moving experience. The upper church had frescoes of the life and miracles of St Francis on each side of the nave.
Once outside and released to explore the town, I could only think that St Francis would be appalled at the rampant capitalist consumerism of the souvenir shops and cafes. We climbed up to the medieval cathedral and had some lunch somewhat out of the general run of tourists. The old town itself is lovely, with cobbled streets and stone houses, often with floral displays in window or wall boxes.
Assisi street scene
The main Piazza has the facade of a Roman ere temple of Minerva, repurposed as the entrance to a church. Much of the marble facing was robbed away, but the marble columns, apparently each in one piece, must have been too big to move!
Temple of Minerva
The next day we left Spoleto, and headed for our last stop, in Frascati. On the way, we visited Tivoli and walked through the Villa D’Este and its extensive sloping garden. Here there are hundreds of fountains, gravity fed from water piped to the top of the garden. In the villa and garden were originally built by Cardinal D’Este in the early 16th century, and alternately neglected and restored ever since. The Villa has some wonderful frescoes (or paintings – I am not sure of the technique used!) on walls and ceilings, which we admired as we were marched through.
The Villa D’Este
The garden and fountains were gorgeous, but wet.
The wall of a hundred fountains
We walked through the garden for a awhile, in a light rain, admiring the network of paths, well kept hedges and trees and the ever-present fountains.
The Neptune Fountain
Having explored all that we could, we had time for lunch in the town of Tivoli before continuing to Frascati. We stopped in the town for a short break, there is a good view from the terrace across the plain towards Rome, but the weather was such that we could not pick out any details! A large Duomo with an imposing facade, and a big Villa on the hill behind the town made up the only sights of interest.
The apparent gully is actually an avenue of trees with a really even canopy. Our hotel was also huge, the Villa Tuscolana.
Despite the impressive facade, our rooms (on the fourth floor) were quite small. However, our visit to a vineyard that evening more than made up for that! The Cantine Santa Benedetta has been in the hands of the same family for 350 years, they have 70 acres under vines which produce some lovely Frascati wine.
We tasted some with appetisers in a big reception room, while Antonio, adult son of the current owner, told us all about the history of the estate and the wines produced there. The room was adorned with many family photos, pictures of Popes, paintings and a corner full of big copper pans!
Copper pans and embroidered pelmet
We moved on to a dining room, where more food was laid out as a buffet – we helped ourselves, but had to keep in mind that there were three further courses to come! Sure enough, a pasta course, a meat course (veal) and dessert (profiteroles) followed, each paired with wines produced on the estate. To top it off, during dessert an opera singer and pianist appeared and performed for us. What a wonderful evening to finish the tour.
The next day we were ferried into Rome, dropping some travellers at a hotel near the train station and the rest of us at the airport.