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Ten days in England (27 June to 7 July 2019)

I tacked ten days onto my holiday in order to go to a garden party in Dulwich on the 5th July. Not wanting to stay in one place all that time, I first of all called in to Ramsgate for the weekend. Having arrived in Heathrow airport from Graz via Vienna, all the baggage except mine circled the carousel. With sinking heart, I reported my bag missing. I was told it was in Vienna and would be forwarded to me, and I provided my Ramsgate address. The upside of this was that I did not have to wrangle my suitcase through the railway system to Ramsgate! When the suitcase arrived 24 hours later, it had clearly been run over at the top end. Luckily only one thing was broken, and not some glass ornaments I had bought at various places. I had to buy a new suitcase.

Lesson: carry a change of clothes and a couple of days-worth of any medications in one’s hand luggage! And phone charger (I had a cable…). As I have been told to do numerous times and didn’t.

While in Ramsgate, by chance the Church of St Laurence was open for visitors. So, I walked up to the church. One of my tenth great grandfathers, Peter Johnson, was Vicar there from 1654 to 1662. He is buried just inside the current vestry door, but his slab is under the carpet. The couple on duty to meet and greet were lovely, we chatted, had a cup of tea, and they showed me a publication on the history of the parish which includes a couple of pages on Peter Johnson. This version of events is that he was dispossessed (of the Parish) for refusing to admit that his ordination was not proper. It was valid according to the rules at the time, but the reforms of 1662 meant that because he was not ordained by a Bishop, he would have to return to study and be ordained ‘properly’. He declined the offer, and thus lost his position. The rest of his life, he ran a small school for boys, attended St Laurence, but also appears to have helped form a dissenting congregation that became the Ebenezer Chapel in Ramsgate.

St Laurence

The Church from the gate

I walked back to Ramsgate and lunched at the Harbour. The Armed Services Day parade marched passed while I ate. Complete with a band, current and former servicemen, some Girl Guides and flags.

Armed Services Dy flags

Armed Services Day flags

The following afternoon I walked along the cliffs to the Rose Garden, where there was a garden party to raise money to keep the garden going. It is a lovely sheltered spot with some beautiful plants. While I was in Ramsgate, I met up with a fourth cousin (a Spain connection on my Friend side) to talk genealogy over a cuppa. We are both stuck with our mutual 3xgreat grandmother, unable to find her birth record or parents names, which do not appear in her marriage details because that took place before 1837.

West Cliff Rose Garden

West Cliff Rose Garden

After Ramsgate I travelled to Essex to meet a first cousin once removed (on the Stevenson side), with whom I had got in contact through Ancestry. I stayed at the local pub for a few days, and had a marvellous time getting to know my ‘new’ cousin and her family. Very generously, I was shown round the sights of the area and entertained most hospitably. We went to Colchester Castle, first. The Roman wall round the Roman era settlement is still in evidence, and the Castle is constructed on the base of a Roman Temple, using recycled Roman building materials! We went on a guided tour of the basement (that held up the Roman temple) and up to the battlements.

Colchester Castle

Colchester Castle

We called in at the Tiptree Jam Factory for lunch at their Café. I recognised bits of it, as it was the location used in one of the Midsomer Murders episodes (as a pickle factory). After lunch, we drove through very lush country-side to Maldon, on the Thames estuary. By chance, it was the day that London taxis bring less-fortunate children to Maldon for an annual picnic so the place was decorated with bunting and balloons, as were the taxis lined up in the park.

London Taxis in Maldon

Taxis at Maldon

The river-side park has plenty of room for children to play, with playgrounds and a water park as well as the promenade along the waterside. The promenade ends at a promontory with a statue of a local Saxon hero, Byrhtnoth, who fought off the Vikings at the Battle of Maldon in the late 10th century. Moored at Malden are many Thames barges, with their distinctive red sails. Some of these took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII.

Maldon and Thames Barges

Maldon and Thames barges

The next day, my cousin took me to visit the Stow Maries WWI airfield, where she is a volunteer. It is a treat to visit! After the war, the farmer simply took back the fields, used the facilities as farm outbuildings, and it is only fairly recently that it has been restored (an ongoing project) and opened to the public. There is lots to see, from the restored mess hall, ready room and some hangers with replica WWI aircraft to a small display showing women’s war work and a museum that gives some idea what it was like to live and work here at the time. Across the parade ground, the old generator building is now out of bounds as a Barn Owl habitat.

Stow Maries Replica WWI planes

Replica WWI planes

I was intrigued that a young Australian had been posted here. Roy Walter Mouritzen (1897-1917) was too young enlist in Australia, so came to the UK to join up.

Story of Mouritzen

The story of Roy Walter Mouritzen

We walked back and up to the Stow Maries church, indeed a lovely setting.

Stow Maries Churchyard

The Stow Maries churchyard

The following day we visited a marvellous English Heritage property, Audley End. The House itself is huge, with a magnificent great hall and baronial staircase, numerous reception rooms (with Italian paintings), suites, and an upstairs coal gallery, so that the staff did not have to carry coals to make up fires and hot water quite so far through the house. Good idea, I thought. The service area was open to view as well – the kitchens, laundry rooms, a big stable block and a kitchen garden behind the stables. We spent most of the day exploring, including a guided tour round the gardens, which are extensive.

The back of Audley End

The back of Audley End

My final morning in Essex was spent talking to the family before being delivered to the station. I was off to Dulwich, where I was staying in a B&B just around the corner from the garden party, which was the next day. The garden party was in celebration of the marriage (earlier in the year) of one of my second cousins (on the Friend side) and took place in his parents’ garden. It was a lovely day! Florists came and arranged flowers, caterers catered, a barman and servers made sure we all had food and drink, and dozens of people mingled. I had a long chat with one of my older cousins, who is both my first cousin once removed and my second cousin once removed, because three Stevenson siblings married three Friend first cousins way back in the 1920’s; she is the child of one pair and I am the grandchild of another.

The Garden in bloom

The garden in bloom

I spent the next few days relaxing with relations, mostly dozing in front of WImbledon on the TV, and dining with the family. My last morning in the B&B I got talking about the family history that I am studying through the UTas Diploma, and thus Convicts. It turned out that my hostess has a connection with a chap who collects convict ‘love tokens’ and co-edited a book about them.  These tokens were mentioned in the course work and I’d seen a collection of them at the National Museum in Canberra. Small world!

Convict Love Tokens Book

Convict Love Tokens

After a bit more time with relations, I was off to Heathrow and the long journey home. it had been a wonderful holiday, but I was exhausted!


A week in Graz (20-27 June, 2019)

I travelled from Treviso via Vienna to Graz by air, and a taxi took me to the door of my Hotel/B&B located a little to the south of the old city centre of Graz. I settled into my room on the fourth floor, just under the roof – in fact my windows were like hatches in the ceiling. It was rather hot and stuffy at first, but there was a cooling fan which helped.

On Friday morning I walked in to the city centre, found the tourist office and booked myself onto a morning bus tour of the outer part of the inner city and a walking tour of the historic centre in the afternoon. It was a hot and sunny day, an open topped bus and I had forgotten to bring my sunscreen. The tour started from outside the Kunsthaus – the modern art museum. This is an interesting modern building that is nicknamed ‘the friendly alien’ because of its blue rounded shape and the nozzles on its roof.

The bus took a circuitous route round the city, initially following the tree-lined Mur River south, passing the modern synagogue and then crossing the river to a park and Museum of Childhood. We were taken round to the east of the city to an area of exclusive looking villas, and past the Botanic Gardens with large greenhouses. We headed back into the city through one of the remaining gates and a section of medieval wall, passed the Dom (cathedral) and down through some narrow streets, past the Opera House returned to the west bank of the river and finally the Mariahilferplatz (where there is a church dedicated to Our Mary of Help) and finished up back at the Kunsthaus.

I walked back to Mariahilferplatz to look at the church and cloisters, it was a Franciscan establishment. I crossed the river by means of footbridges connected to a cafe floating in the river, the Murinsel. This and the Kunsthaus, were built especially for Graz being the 2003 European City of Culture. The Mur river was very fast flowing, and apparently the standing waves near the Murinsel allow for river surfing!

I found an Italian cafe for lunch, then wandered a bit more, returning to the Tourist Office to join the English speaking city walking tour. The Tourist Office is in the ground floor of the Arsenal, which is now a museum of weaponry. We exited into the courtyard where the symbol of the region, a Styrian Panther, was painted on a door. The Styrian Panther appears all over town and is used as branding on local produce. It is a mythical beast best shown photographically rather than described, which breathes fire, and in some versions emits fire from all bodily orifices.

The Styrian Panther


The Styrian Panther

We walked through the courtyard and along the side of the Town Hall to the Hauptplatz (main square) which the Town Hall faces. From here we could see the Schlossberg, the tree covered hill which looms over the city from the north. It once was fortified by a castle that held out against all attacks, but was razed by Napoleon’s army in 1809, after the garrison was ordered to surrender. The towns-folk paid a ransom to preserve the Bell Tower and the Clock Tower, which still stand today.

The Schlossberg from the Hauptplatz

The Schlossberg from the Hauptplatz

We ducked through some alleyways between and under buildings, to a small courtyard where many people had gathered to see the Glockenspiel perform at 3 pm. Originally built to advertise beer, dancing male and female figures appear and twirl to musical bells, with the show ending with a cock crow.

The Glockenspiel

The Glockenspiel

From here we wended our way up to the Duomo and Mausoleum of an Emperor of Austria (Frederick II, I think), but what we were shown was an old fresco on the outside of the Duomo, protected by glass (and therefore not photographable). It depicts the Judgement Day and the three disasters of the middle ages to visit Graz, a plague of locusts, the Ottoman invasions and the Black Death. The remaining population really thought the end of the world was nigh.

Walking further, we were taken into an office building that incorporates part of a castle that used to be on the spot: the famous double spiral staircase. One side goes clockwise and the opposite anti-clockwise, and they intersect at each full turn, so one can move from one to the other. Facing onto the courtyard from which we accessed the staircase, is a painted window that was only found within the structure during building works five years ago!

The Painted Window

The window

On our way downhill back to the Hauptplatz, we passed a lovely bakery with carved wooden façade, and a display of biscuits (cookies) iced with portraits of Austrian Emperors as zombies. Bizarre.

The Bakery

The Bakery

After the tour, which finished on the bridge admiring the Kunsthaus and Murinsel, some of us went up to the rooftop café in a department store. Lovely view over the rooftops – which is one reason that Graz has UNESCO World Heritage listing, its lovely rooftops with dormer windows.

Graz rooftops


So that was Friday! The weekend was wet and I did very little exploration. Luckily there was a nearby corner shop where I could buy sandwiches and fruit. I caught up with blogging about  the last few stops in Italy.

On Monday, I went up to the top of the Schlossberg in a steep funicular rail-car. The view from the top was lovely, it was a beautiful clear and sunny day and I could see up the valley to the mountains in the north. There was also a vista down over the city centre, with an excellent view of the Kunsthaus with all its rooftop nozzles.

Graz from Schlossberg

The Kunsthaus, Murinsel and Mariahilferplatz from the Schlossberg

There is lots to see on the Schlossberg, from a lion monument for the general who held out against Napoleon’s forces to a fake Egyptian doorway in a huge wall holding up the cannon bastion. There are the Bell Tower and the Clock Tower, a Chinese pavilion and the deep well that draws on the waters of the Mur, 94 metres down. I finished up with a late lunch at the Restaurant over-looking the city.

On the Schlossberg

The well and Stable Bastion.

On Tuesday I was up and out early to get the tram to the station, a train to Köflach and a bus to Piber. Schloss Piber is the home of the Lippizaner stud, where are bred the white horses that dance in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I had a lovely time looking round, admiring the mares and foals and watching a training session in the indoor school. There was a museum and a church to look at as well. It was a hot but magical day.

Horses at Piber

Some of the mares and foals

Wednesday was another hot day, which I spent riding on the trams to a couple of outer attractions. First was a trip out to Schloss Eggenberg, a huge amazing palace. I was the only English speaker, so had a private tour! It was closed up for 150 years when inherited by a collateral line that had enough palaces, thanks, so closed the Schloss. Thus it is still in the fashion of the 18th century, with very grand state rooms on the second floor. Outside there is an equally impressive park which includes an archaeology museum. The museum has many relics, but not dated and where there were explanations, only in German. In the far corner of the park, I found a pavilion serving food, so lunch was sorted.

Schloss Eggenberg

Schloss Eggenberg

Then it was back to the tram, and off to the other end of its run (for which I had to change to a bus as the tramline was being repaired) to get to the Mariatrost. This is a baroque basilica up in the hills, north east of the city. From the end of the tram line it was a climb up 140 steps grouped in sets of ten (for the rosary, perhaps) to the church. It is a place of pilgrimage dedicated to St Mary that houses a ‘gnadenstatue’ or statue of miracles, at the altar. It was very impressive and highly decorated!



Back to the city centre and I headed up the Schlossberg again to admire the view again. Finally, I had a quick walk through the Gesichte Museum before it closed and finished the day with a gelato in the Hauptplatz. On my walks to and from the funicular, I went past a hiking shop. It was selling kilts as the best wear for hill walking this season!!

Kilts in a hiking shop

Kilts for sale

On Thursday morning I was picked up by an early taxi back to the airport and off to Vienna and then London. It had been a lovely week exploring Graz. I really enjoyed this beautiful city.

Graz corner

Travels to Treviso (16 – 20 June 2019)

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.

Palazzo della Regionale

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 Arena and wing

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.

Example Palladian Window

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.

Palladian house

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.

Villa Contarini Nenzi

The Hotel Villa Contarini Nenzi

Dinner that evening was in the Villa restaurant, housed in the former stables.

The Villa's 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 Bassano

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 Treviso fish market

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

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 days on Lake Garda (13 – 16 June, 2019)

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

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.

Cheese stacks

Cheese stacks

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.

Exotic cars

Car collection

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.

Salo waterfront

Salo waterfront

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

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.


Support structureArches 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!

Villa remains

More remains

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!

Rocca Scaligera

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.



Lucca and what we did there (9-13 June, 2019)

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 Lucca Amfiteatro

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.

San Frediano mosaic

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!

Torre Guinigi

Torre Guinigi

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, Firenze

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.

View of Firenze

Overlooking Firenze

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.

On the walls of Lucca

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

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

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.

A shady lunch spot

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.

Palazzo Pfanner staircase

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 Guinigi

Villa Guinigi

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.

Villa Mansi bedroom

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.



Genova and environs (7-9 June, 2019)

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.

Genovan Galleon


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 rooftops

Genova rooftops

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.

Genova Palazzo

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.

Crucifixes at St Erasmus

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.

Abbey of San Fruttuosa

San Fruttuosa

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

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.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

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.

Porto Venere

Porto Venere

From La Spezia we moved on to Lucca, on the way passing the famous Carrera marble quarries and shipping stockpiles.

Carrera marbla

Carrera marble


Stresa and some Italian Lakes

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.

Lake Maggiore from the hotel

Lake Maggiore

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

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.

Ascona puce foxes

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.

The Villa, Isola Bella

Isola Bella

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

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.

On Isola San Guilio

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

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).