UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 03

Monday September 11, 2017

We’re in Venice. But I’m not gonna talk about it – okay? Just two hours ago, a couple of speeding open-top water-taxis zoomed us through the Grand Canal to a jetty-of-sorts where we clambered over a metal gate and came ashore just a short distance from our very old, very atmospheric hotel in this amazing, enduring city. But I’m not gonna tell you anymore right now, because you’ll be wanting to know about yesterday – right?

First, I need to ask you: have you read books about Tuscany, watched movies about Tuscany, seen photos of Tuscany? Well, sorry if this makes you feel jealous, but yesterday we got to sample Tuscany for ourselves!

Leaving the orange-roofed cityscapes of Florence, we motored south through hilltop vineyards, olive groves, Cyprus rows and intermittent rain to the 700-year-old tower-filled skyline of San Gimignano (pronounced ‘San-jim-in-YAH-no’ – come on, try it). Known as the Tuscan Manhattan, San Gimignano owes its trademark silhouette to rival medieval families who tried to outdo each other by building taller and taller towers, and generally showing off.

It was a treat, I tell you! And stepping back in time down those cobblestone streets, surrounded by 13th and 14th century mansions – plus more brick-and-mortar towers than you can shake a stick at – helped create yet another unforgettable highlight.

We then left the main highway and motored along ever-narrowing (unsealed) country lanes, before stopping, finally, at a ‘country resort’ for a tasting of wine plus a posh Tuscan-style lunch (ravioli followed by duck-breast followed by chocolate cake with a melting chocolate heart).

If the owners had offered us beds or couches for an afternoon siesta, we would’ve succumbed with pleasure. But when no such offer was made, we climbed back onto the coach and drove further south to Siena, the region’s best-preserved medieval city.

We explored its ancient walls, steep steps and winding alleyways … admired the Duomo, Siena’s imposing cathedral, with its striking striped architecture, marble-floor-mosaics and gorgeous frescoes … and emerged, eventually, in the atmospheric Piazza del Campo, where we did our best to imagine Il Palio: Siena’s legendary horse-race, where rival contrades (districts) compete with colourfully decorated banners. This twice-yearly spectacular has taken place for the past 300 years, and today draws bigger and noisier crowds from all around the world.

As you can probably tell, we’re having an AWFUL time – and we’re not even halfway yet! I don’t know how we’re gonna cope with another two weeks like this …

COMING UP: Unique-in-all-the-world Venice, with its onion-domed cathedrals, priceless Renaissance art, criss-crossing canals and hordes of adoring, camera-toting tourists – just like us! Dust off your piano-accordions, folks, and stand by for the signal to sing along: ‘O Sole Mio …’

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our hotly-sought-after Quacky Yellow Ducks continue to leave the nest …

  • WAYNE F won our ‘Hard of Hearing’ Award – for (i) climbing over the chain fence at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa so he could check out the bells. Wayne was promptly grabbed by two armed guards and thrown from the Tower. (Okay, slight exaggeration. But he was growled at.) Then (ii) Wayne happened to be walking with me through the grounds at yesterday’s lunch-stop when I happened to remark to my wife (who happened to be walking in front): “This is lovely, isn’t it Darling.” And Wayne replied, “Yes, it is.” So l told him, “I was actually talking to my wife, Honey!”
  • SUZANNE ran off with her second duck, winning our ‘Duh! Technology’ Award. She came to me yesterday complaining, “I can’t get my camera to work …” and showed me her blank screen. “Have you turned it off and on again?” “Yes,” she said. “I’ve tried everything I can think of.” “Well,” I suggested, “Do you want to try taking off the lens-cap?”

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)

LEANING TOWERS & LOOMING DUOMOS

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 02

Saturday September 9, 2017

It was sad saying goodbye to the Italian Riviera yesterday. We’d got to like strolling the narrow streets and wandering the stony beaches and admiring the colourful house-fronts and lying around the pool. But, as I keep reminding our group: we’re not on holiday, for goodness sake. This is a LEARNING experience … it’s ADULT EDUCATION … and we’ve got WORK to do!

So, despite threats of tears and even violence, our Mad Midlife Kiwis vacated their rooms, handed in their keys, and climbed, reluctantly, aboard our coach.

However, it wasn’t long before new highlights were tickling their travel taste-buds!

First stop was Pisa ­– which draws its fame today from an architectural project gone horribly wrong, but was once a maritime power to rival Genoa and Venice. We began our tour in a wide walled area known as the Piazza dei Miracoli (the Square of Miracles). And, believe it or not, the real masterpieces here were the impressive Duomo di Pisa (Pisa Cathedral) dating from 1093, and the ornately beautiful Baptistry (completed in the 1300s) – not the smaller, eye-catching bell tower, which was built later and decided soon after to tilt in a rather alarming fashion.

You can’t help noticing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, of course, because it really does lean – ominously – despite the endless, ongoing attempts to straighten it up. But, lucky Kiwis that we are, we didn’t just notice it – we got to CLIMB it (well, the fitter amongst us did), and enjoy the spectacular views from the top!

Next stop, less than an hour down the road, was Lucca, a lovely pearl of a city that visitors go gaga over. Hidden behind imposing Renaissance walls (the only town in Italy entirely surrounded like this), its cobbled streets, handsome piazzas and shady promenades make it a perfect destination to explore by foot – which is exactly what we did. And the gelatos (ice-creams) are to die for.

Final stop on yesterday’s agenda was the regional capital, Florence – a bustling cultural centre much-loved by Florentines and much-envied by the rest of Europe. And we got the feel of the place last night when we walked through the crowded streets to dinner at La Cantinetta del Boccanegra.

With a name like that the food’s gotta be good, eh – and it was superb!

Florence is home to the greatest collections of Renaissance art and sculpture in the world – and, this morning, we explored its highlights on foot and on horseback. (Okay, I’m lying about the horses – although that would’ve been fun! Maybe next time?)

This city of over 300,000 people is sliced by the gleaming River Arno and dominated by the vast Duomo of the Cathedral – still (600 years on) the largest brick-and-mortar dome in the world. The Galleria dell’Accademia has wall-to-wall paintings by the greats, and the city’s many piazzas feature stunning marble creations – including Michelangelo’s massive naked David. Around every corner are churches, markets, shops … and, on every street, throngs of tourists.

Florence (according to the travel-books) is the “beating heart of Tuscany” … a “medieval jewel worshipped by writers and artists throughout history as an escape for the soul”.

Escape for the soul? Having quickly fallen in love with this lovely city, I think we’d all say “Amen!” to that …

COMING UP: We’re off to eyeball Tuscany’s best-preserved medieval city: Siena … plus a famous tower-filled hilltop-town: San Gimignano. Try your hand at pronouncing that. And don’t change channels, whatever you do …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally renowned Quacky Yellow Ducks are already finding new homes as people get caught doing silly, embarrassing or hilarious things …

  • TRISHA ran away with our ‘Kiwi Ingenuity’ Award by using her bidet to take the swelling out of her feet. (I’ll leave you to picture the scene …)
  • WAYNE M took home our ‘Pole-Dancing’ Award following a head-on altercation with a rather solid pole in the Cinque Terre. Both Wayne and the pole are recovering nicely.
  • ROSS earned himself our ‘Don Juan’ Award ­while eating pizza tonight in a local Trattoria (restaurant). Someone was going around the tables selling red roses, and Ross (romantic to the core) bought one, much to the surprise and delight of his wife. But instead of giving it to her, Ross gave the rose to the waitress. Whoops! (Watch this space …)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)

SANTA MARGHERITA & THE CINQUE TERRE

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 01

Thursday September 7, 2017

Imagine finding yourself in a stunning, atmospheric old town … on a spectacular stretch of the Mediterranean Coast … in a beautiful bay ringed by boutique hotels and stately orange/red/yellow villas and boat-crowded marinas and beaches smothered in wall-to-wall umbrellas. Imagine lying in the sun beside a gorgeous pool after a lazy swim in the tepid water … recalling the yummy lunch you just ate in the shady courtyard of a tiny restaurant along the road … and dreaming of endless gourmet possibilities for dinner tonight. And imagine telling yourself to stop all this nonsense … take your slothful self indoors … and start writing the travel-blog that should’ve been started three days ago.

It takes a very strong man to tear himself away from such idyllic loveliness and, instead, go sit at a desk and type words into a small laptop. And, until half an hour ago, that man was not me. Which is why this blog-entry is so embarrassingly late.

But I am what I am. And it is what it is. And at least, at last, I’m DOING it! So allow me, patient reader, to bring you up to speed …

Our Mad Midlife group left Godzone last Saturday in search of adventure. (Actually, that’s not quite true – some had left days earlier and were already in Europe, waiting for the group to catch up.) We spent Sunday enjoying Singapore, before taking to the air for another 12 hours of long-haul torture. And we finally touched-down in Europe (a little worse-for-wear) on Monday morning.

Milan is Italy’s second biggest city. But, frankly, we didn’t care. With the help of Elisabetta (our delightful Italian guide), we loaded bodies and bags into a coach, and hit the highway for an hour or three, stopping enroute for a stroll around the magical town of Parma (famous for its locally-produced Parmesan cheese, Parma ham & salami, focaccia bread and wine) … followed by a delissimo country-style lunch (of Parmesan cheese, Parma ham & salami, focaccia bread and wine) at a locally-produced country-style farm: namely, La Fattoria del Boschetto.

A further two hours away, on the Mediterranean shore, lay Santa Margherita – a charming, palm-lined harbour town that has long been a fashionable resort for the rich and famous. And, given that all 25 of us are rich and famous, it was inevitable that we should end up here – not just for one night, but for four! And not just in any old b&b, but in one of the region’s most luxurious beachfront establishments: the Grand Hotel Miramare!

You really oughta see it!

The Italian Riviera is one of Italy’s hottest holiday hot-spots – nestled between the Ligurian Sea and the Maritime Alps, and famous for its over-the-top glamour, its natural beauty, its laid-back charm. And, on Tuesday, after a slap-up outdoor breakfast on the hotel terrace, we drove around the coast to another Italian treasure: a World Heritage Site known to the world as the Cinque Terre (literally ‘five lands’).

Strung along 18km of serrated cliffs are five higgledy-piggledy villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – dating from the Middle Ages and set amongst eye-popping seascapes. Cars and motorbikes are banned from these steep, crooked streets – instead, the villages are connected by train, which we rode on Tuesday, speeding through countless tunnels, rumbling past terraced olive-groves and stone-walled vineyards.

All of the towns slope down to sea-level – except for Corniglia, which is perched on teetering cliffs. And they all possess an olde-worlde charm, their narrow lanes lined with multi-hued old houses stacked haphazardly on top of each other.

But wait! There’s more …

Further around another coastal corner in the opposite direction is the picture-perfect town of Portofino … crammed with brightly-coloured houses, cafés, shops, and super-yachts, and nestled snugly in a crescent-shaped bay where the cliffs of the Appenines plunge to the sea.

Despite the rain which threatened yesterday, some eager Kiwis covered the distance by boat, while others walked. And all were very glad they did, because Portofino, no matter how you get there, is a sight-for-sore-eyes!

Look: if you haven’t already done so, you must add the Italian Riviera to your ‘bucket-list’. And, when you finally get here, you must take your time. Listen to the bell-towers chiming … watch the old men with their colourful little fishing boats … check out an ornate cathedral or a ruined castle … join sunbathers on a pebbly beach, or spread your towel on a lumpy bit of rock … choose from the endless array of cafés, bars and restaurants … suck on fresh strawberries and cherries … tempt your tastebuds with cheeses, olives, pizzas and the like … then sit yourself down on an ancient seawall and lick an icy-cool gelato.

COMING UP: Tomorrow morning we’re off to arty-farty Florence, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and other jewels that lie waiting for us “under the Tuscan sun”. So stay tuned …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally renowned Quacky Yellow Ducks are already finding new homes as people get caught doing silly, embarrassing or hilarious things …

  • STEVE was first up, winning our ‘Medical Emergency’ Award before we’d even left Auckland! Upon arriving at the Airport, poor Steve discovered he’d forgotten his pills – so promptly caught himself a taxi and raced home to get them, rendezvousing back at the Airport in time for a quick coffee before boarding.
  • SUZANNE was next, claiming our ‘Coffee-Grinder’ Award here in Santa Margherita. Our posh hotel rooms all have ensuites, and those ensuites all have bidets. And, in an attempt to try hers out, Suzanne pushed the nearest button – and was rewarded with a noise that sounded for all the world like a coffee-grinder. She was momentarily excited, thinking she could perhaps multi-task here, and enjoy a latte while having a wash. Alas, the button turned out to belong not to a coffee-grinder but to the shutter which adorned the nearby window. A disappointment? Yes, but she’s getting over it.
  • HELEN earned herself the ‘Knickerless’ Award … after doing her laundry the other day. She’d hung her smalls outside on the balcony to dry. But, sometime later, those smalls had mysteriously disappeared. Turns out Helen’s lingerie had taken flight and ended up on the balcony of the camper below … and it took some not-so-small effort on the part of her husband plus a willing maid to retrieve the runaways.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)

EAT YOUR HEART OUT …

ITALY-CROATIA BLOG 00

Wednesday August 30, 2017

Yeehaa! It’s happening again! In just three short sleeps we’ll be quitting soggy, muddy Godzone and jetting away to warm, sunny Europe for another adventure-of-a-lifetime! There’ll be 25 of us in this Mad Midlife group, and we’re all DOUBLY-EXCITED! Why? Because the itinerary we’ve stitched together is taking us to not just ONE of our favourite places … but TWO!

First, there’s ITALY: Uniquely lovable Italy with its colourful history, its insanely good cuisine, its romantic music, its friendly locals. The name Italy conjures up 2000-year-old ruins … soaring architecture and museums-for-all … open-air cafés and restaurants … olive groves, vineyards and free-flowing wine  … picture-postcard Tuscan villages … gondolas on Venetian canals … and the sweet life, La Dolce Vita!

Second, there’s CROATIA: Its unspoiled shoreline, its paradise islands, its hilltop villages and medieval towns. Countless civilisations have imprinted this ancient corner of Europe, and whispers of the past seem to follow you everywhere you go. Plus there’s an Olde Worlde charm that makes the region irresistible. We’ll soon be soaking it up … aboard the ms Agape Rose, the motor-launch we’ve chartered to showcase the alluring Adriatic.

This combination of discovery-on-shore and luxury-at-sea is gonna be simply fantastic! And we promise to keep you posted with scintillating reports and eye-popping photos.

So don’t go too far away – okay?

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Keep it brief – and be sure to say who it’s for and who it’s from.)