Friday, November 18, 2016

Tuscan Road Trip Part 2

After leaving Florence, we travelled to Cinque Terre, via Lucca.  This delightful walled town has a charming circular piazza filled with shops, restaurants and houses.
sunset Levanto Beach
After a quick wander around the streets, coffee and a lovely lemon syrup cake we set off for our final destination. Cinque Terre, as its name suggests consists of 5 towns all perched on the western edge of the province of Liguria  overlooking the Mediterranean. This rugged section is reminiscent of the Cornish smuggling villages, where access is limited and the coast treacherous. This time we decided to stay in Levanto, not strictly in Cinque Terre but where the local train starts from and where walking tracks also commence. Access is much easier to Levanto and it is easier to get accommodation without booking - at least in October. In the height of the season I wouldn't recommend arriving without a reservation for accommodation anywhere along this region.
Levanto from the walking track to Monterosso
Fortuitously we managed to get accommodation in a little B&B called Marco's. Marco is a very friendly guy and was a mine of information, from the best places to eat and drink and the best towns to visit and which walking tracks to take. The local tourist bureau was also helpful and it was from here that we bought our two day cinque Terre pass. This allows you to use the train, buses and walking trails in the national park for no further charge. Invaluable when you have had enough of walking - you can just hop on the train without queueing up for a train ticket.
Our first morning in Levanto we were wandering along the foreshore contemplating tackling our first mountain walk when from around the corner of a building out popped Sue and Pete.  Talk about coincidence - twice in a week in different parts of Italy.
After arranging to meet up for drinks, we headed off on the walking trail to Monterosso. This part of the track wasn't subject to fees and after walking for about 30 minutes we understood why.  It was very steep, not that well maintained and quite challenging. We decided to turn around and catch the train and use our energy walking through the towns.
Riomaggiore was the first town we visited. It was easy to see the charm of these towns and why they have become so popular with tourists. Steep pedestrian streets lead down to quaint harbours. Due to it being the end of the fishing season most boats had been hauled out of the water and were being cleaned before being covered for winter.
Manarola doesn't have such an easy harbour for boats to get in and out of the water and so many of them are hauled up with the rope and tackle seen on the photo below. We had a very casual lunch here of Fritto Misto - locally caught seafood battered and deep fried and served straight away. Lovely with a squeeze of juice from the local lemons. As well as seafood, grapes and olives, lemons are a staple here - squeezed over seafood and risotto, lovely lemon syrup cakes and, of course, limoncello.
Typical Street Monterosso
Of the five towns, Monterosso is the flattest and is spread out a lot more. The old and new towns are separated by a strip of beach and a tunnel. We journeyed here on our second day and arrived just in time for lunch. We picked a popular looking restaurant and had a lovely authentic Italian meal of a seafood platter and a local pasta delicacy.

Next we went to the smallest but most popular town of Vernazza. Every photo that you have ever seen of Cinque Terre features this village.  It is so iconic with is sheltered harbour, colourful fishing boats and main street running right down to the water's edge. The breakwater that juts out from the harbour is a popular fishing spot and a place for tourists to sit and soak up the ambience.

Cactus growing over the cliff below Corniglia
The last town we visited was Corniglia. This is the only one on Cinque Terre without a harbour. It sits proudly on the clifftop overlooking the Mediterranean and has vistas in both directions of other towns  in Cinque Terre. The train deposits you at the foot of the town and you can either catch the bus to the top or climb a seemingly endless set of steps. We decided to get our exercise for the day by climbing the steps. Our reward was a panoramic view over the area, and a well needed coffee in the piazza. The rail that you see in the photo on the right is actually a mini train line that takes the grape growers to their vines on the perpendicular slopes. This enables them to tend the vines much more easily than if they had to walk up and down the rows - definitely mountain goat country.

View towards Monterosso
Lake Como with snow capped Alps
After leaving Cinque Terre we returned to Strasbourg via Lake Como. We decided to break the journey here and to potentially meet up with some of the rich and famous. Traffic into Como itself was horrendous - it was lunchtime - so we deviated to Cernobbio not realising that this is where George Clooney has a villa. Well we didn't see George Clooney or any other famous person but we did see Harry's Bar, the home of that renowned cocktail, the Bellini. This was made famous by the other Harrys Bar in Venice. We also had probably the best meal on this holiday in Italy at a little Enoteca called Vino and Affinity. The food we had there was definitely served with love.
Overall I would have to say I was disappointed in the choice of food in Italian restaurants. It may sound strange but it was too Italian and not that good in some cases either. If you didn't like it then there wasn't anything else to choose. Apparently some mayors won't allow restaurants to serve anything other than Italian food. There is only so much carbohydrate -  pizza, focaccia and pasta - that you can eat. After seeing all the delightful vegetables in the market it was really disappointing to not be offered them in restaurants. Next time we go back we will have to book a villa with a full kitchen so that we can cook our own meals using the amazing fresh market produce.

Tuscan Road Trip Part One

We now have a car and are no longer limited to foot power, pedal power or public transport. Since reading the Inferno by Dan Brown I wanted to have another look at Florence so we decided on a short trip to Tuscany to see Florence and the Chianti area and also to return via Cinque Terre.  The last time we were in Cinque Terre, it was really hot and one member of our family, who shall remain nameless, wasn't very keen on 40C heat so we only had a cursory view before heading into Switzerland.
Sunset on Lago Garda
Driving from Strasbourg to our first overnight stop of Lago Garda we went through 4 countries and drove around 650km. Hard to imagine that many countries in one day when you live in Australia!
Our stop in Lake Garda was unplanned. It is such a lovely spot and as the sunk sank over the lake we had the opportunity to take some lovely photos. We had our first Italian meal of the holiday before strolling around the town of Riva del Garda. Of course we had to have a gelato before retiring to our cheap and cheerful accommodation. The next morning we drove further around the lake and came across some lovely little fishing villages.
Fishing boats on Lago Garda
Artefacts of olive oil pressing
Onward to Florence! We had decided to stay outside of Florence at Villa Torre Rossa on an olive orchard which produces organic olive oil. Arriving here we were stunned by the amazing view from our apartment over Florence and the peace and calm of the property.
Villa Torre Rossa

 While staying in Florence might have meant we were closer to the action, staying out in the countryside was much more relaxing.
Our accommodation was an easy drive into Florence and we were able to park the car and walk quite easily into the main part of Florence. I had thought by October that the hordes of tourists would have disappeared and we would have a better chance of seeing all the sights. How wrong I was! Tourist attractions like the Duomo, Uffizi, Academia, Ponte Vecchio were heaving with tour groups following their leaders like good little sheep. It was such a relief to get to the quieter streets around Santa Croce and the other side of the Arno. 

Duomo From Piazzale Michelangelo
Duomo amid the crowds

We did, however, find our way to the Central Mercato. What a fabulous place to buy fresh produce and a real gathering place for the locals. If I lived in Florence I would definitely be visiting here every day.
Lovely fresh produce

Upstairs above the market is an amazing food hall where you can sample all types of Italian cuisine freshly prepared for you. It was also the place where we met Kevin's English cousins Sue and Pete. Have to come to Florence to bump into family! 

Mercado food hall

Sue, Pete and Kevin at Ponte Vecchio
What's lunch without cannoli for dessert
Ponte Vecchio from Piazzale Michelangelo

Staying outside of Florence also gave us the opportunity to travel into the surrounding Chianti countryside and visit some of the charming towns and vineyards dotting the hillsides. So much history and such lovely vistas.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Strasbourg - The crossroads of Europe

Strasbourg, in the Alsace region, is our winter destination for 2016. It is a city of contrasts. On the one hand you have the European capital with its very modern parliamentary buildings and on the other you have the Middle Ages historic centre with its colourful half timbered houses and German heritage. While there are many tourists in the centre of Strasbourg looking at the all the lovely sites, there is also a good mix of younger people. Strasbourg has the second largest university in France and so there are areas where the vibe is much younger with an eclectic mix of nationalities. Of course there are also the international expats who live here because of the European Parliament. This means that there are many different types of restaurants and foods to choose from when eating out and also available from the supermarkets. There are even Asian supermarkets to source such things as Thai curry paste and shaoxing cooking wine.
Our first visitors in Strasbourg - Alex and Helen
We have settled in quite well to our marina which is about a 20 minute walk from the centre of Strasbourg or a 10 minute tram ride.
On the weekend we had our first social event here at the marina. It was a great night with lots of wine and cremant flowing as well as generous amounts of food, including  a lamb on a spit. A live band was also playing. We have come across this type of entertainment frequently during the summer in France and are constantly surprised at how good the musicians are and also that most of them are our age or older. Needless to say the usual marina rule of no noise after 10:30 didn't apply this time as the band was still playing at midnight.
Strasbourg occupies a very strategic position on the eastern part of France and over the centuries has at times alternated between being a German state and then a French state. This shows in the architecture, food, language. For us it also means that we are able to hop across the border and be in Germany for lunch or do to a spot of shopping. Food and electrical goods are generally cheaper in Germany than France so we get to cherry pick where we want to shop for the best variety and price. 
Also now that we have a car we can travel further afield and be in Switzerland, Austria or Italy in a few hours.
"Old"Strasbourg is  lovely with some very attractive and colourful medieval half timbered houses.

The area of Petite France is especially pretty but its history wasn't quite so sweet. In the medieval times it was the tannery area of Strasbourg. It was ideal as it is entirely surrounded by water so the tanners could easily wash the hides and also, as it was not in the direction of the prevailing wind, any nasty smells didn't get blown into the main areas of Strasbourg.
We had heard that there was a free walking tour of the city so we decided to take advantage of this to see if we could learn any interesting tidbits about Strasbourg that you wouldn't read in a book. Here are a couple of little known facts:

1) The wooden medieval houses are actually demountable and transportable! They were built in such a way that the wooden supports were all numbered by the carpenters and the bits in between the wooden supports were only filled with "temporary" products thus enabling them to be shifted elsewhere. This could occur if the ground became unsuitable or if development meant that the area was needed for another purpose other than residential.
2) Since 1914 Strasbourg has changed nationalities 5 times. At the end of WWII they were allowed to decide whether to be German or French. They chose French because, through history, when they were under French rule they felt that they were given more freedom and choice.
3) The cathedral was built over a period of 200 years and had numerous architects who changed the plans as they went so it is easy to see different styles of architecture on the facade of the cathedral. When the plans were first drawn Strasbourg Cathedral would have been the tallest building in Europe. However, by the time construction was nearly finished it was no longer so.  Therefore the last architect decided to add the tower that we see today, but because the foundations weren't built to take such a weight it was decided that only one tower would be built - hence the reason the cathedral is asymmetric.
4) In the square in front of the cathedral is a post attached to the corner of a shop. Apparently the space between the post and the building is significant. The town councillors, after a meeting, would walk around the town and visit the homes of many local people where they would be offered food and wine. At the end of the day if they could no longer fit through the gap between the pole and the building they were sacked because it appeared that they were more interested in eating and drinking than listening to the woes of their constituents !! Also if a pregnant lady could no longer fit between the gap she had to go home immediately because it was thought the baby would be arriving soon!