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Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Stia to Assisi

31st March
Three very pleasant days soon passed in Stia, time enough for me to resolve to do something about the intermittent knocking coming from the RH front suspension. Fearing that the problem was going to be a re-run of our French episode, I followed Sue’s advice (for a change) and contacted the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) rescue service to locate a suitable garage.

The ever helpful Emma at the call centre in Lyon contacted an Italian assistance organization and by the afternoon we had the address of a FIAT main agent, GAMMA Spa, at Campi Bisenzio near Firenze (GPS 43.8290N, 11.1292E). We elected to see them the following morning, but drove through Firenze that day and parked opposite the garage. The evening traffic was really manic, literally a racing circuit, as scooters, vans, cars and buses jockeyed for position.

1st April
Had a remarkably peaceful night parked in the street. Contacted Emma again in the morning and was soon speaking to a representative from Sanitrans Assistance Srl, who translated our requirements to the garage.
The workshop manager took the van for a drive and nearly freaked Sue out as he obviously thought our van was painted red with a black and yellow prancing horse on the side! He concluded that the top bearing in the strut was defective – not what I wanted to hear, as paying for jobs to be done twice is a wind up.

Once again we were staring at the inside of a McPherson strut, however this time it was apparent that the Ammortizzato was leaking oil. I hadn’t given much thought to the shock absorbers, assuming that they would be good for at least 50,000 miles. The senior fitter reckoned around 50,000 km, which put a different perspective on things, as converting our 44,000 miles to Km meant they had done over 70,000km. No point messing around now with kit at the end of its useful life, so I asked for them both to be changed.

Il conto came to €514, with a labour time of 3 hours, half what the French garage claimed for basically the same job. Despite the best efforts of Gamma, they couldn’t charge my credit card, but Emma came to the rescue yet again, organising a credit via Sanitrans.

If you are planning touring in Europe, don’t even think about it without RAC breakdown cover. For around £70 additional insurance premium you have access to other assistance organisations in Europe including the so vital translation services, and if you’re lucky, Emma’s wonderful sense of humour to ease the stress of your breakdown.

2nd April.
Spent another night in a residential street, still in Campi Bisenzio. Not something we make a habit of, but needs must and it was peaceful enough apart from some guys who parked their car loudly behind us at 0130, got out their brushes and proceeded to stick up some posters for the forthcoming election.

Made our way to Camping Michelangelo in Florence (Firenze). (michelangelo@ecvacanze.it) (GPS 4.7628N, 11.2683E). This is an old established site on a hill overlooking Firenze, five minutes walk from the Piazzale Michelangelo. It comes at a price though, €34.40 a night and no discounts, electricity supply only 2A.

The colony of Florentia was actually founded by Julius Caesar in 1 BC, but didn’t become an important Tuscan town until the 11C. From the 13th to the 16th Century it was the centre of artistic and intellectual activity which gave birth to the movement later known as the Renaissance. Famous names linked irrevocably with Florence include Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Botticelli.

After lunch we walked down to the city via the steps from Piazzale Michelangelo, only 15 minutes to the Ponte Vecchio. The areas at each end of the bridge were destroyed in the war, but the rest, rebuilt in 1345, has survived to the present day. Alas, the crowds are already here, in early April.

The Loggia della Signoria in the Piazza della Signoria is an open air museum of some of the world’s most famous statues, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David (he who slew Goliath). We had to jostle to take some photos, the hundreds of school kids squatting on the plinths and walls like pigeons.

Next a quick look at the Duomo and the Campanile tower adjacent, the pink, white and green marble decoration is really something. Sue was muttering about a visit to the Cupola del Brunelleschi, the dome of the Cathedral, but the queues were stretching around the corner so instead we went for a Café Americano and had a rather sustaining pastry tart filled with cooked rice and cream.

Finally for the day, a visit to the Piazza Santa Croce, home to another marble fronted Basilica.
The tickets for the bus back to the campsite had to be bought beforehand, €1.20 each at a Tabacchi. The same scheme exists all over Italy, the tickets are valid for 70 minutes and you can take as many buses as you need in that time.

3rd April. Florence.
Today was the big one, climbing the 463 steps up to the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. You can tell these visits are going to be strenuous when they put up notices saying “Do not attempt if you have a heart condition”.
It started ok, big stone staircase with landings, then changed to a tight spiral as you get to the gallery overlooking the nave. You do a half circuit of the gallery but can’t see much, because the Perspex screens erected around it are so high and so dirty. Then some tight passages and more spiral stairs. Some comic behind us (obviously a Led Zeppelin fan) called out “is this the stairway to heaven?” Sue, puffing a bit, whipped back with “I hope not!” (At least she’s confident of where she's going).

When Brunelleschi built his dome he devised a double skin construction to deal with the enormous forces involved. At the final assent to the top you actually climb between the two concentric domes, before emerging like an exhausted troglodyte into the fresh air. The view, of course, is splendid.

By the time we reached ground level again, the downward spirals had induced some giddiness, and stabilisation in the form of lunch was required. Over more pizza, the heavens opened and we decided to stay under cover for tiramisu and coffee.

The Battistero di San Giovanni is also faced in white and green marble and is famous for its bronze doors, the East set of which by Lorenzo Ghiberti was declared by Michelangelo to be worthy of being the Gates of Paradise. The 13th Century mosaics inside the dome are superbly lit and vie with the doors for artistic skill and story telling. The trouble is you really need to take your bed in with you to lie down and study them properly.

Last visit of the day was to the Museo dell Opera del Duomo which contains some original works, since replaced by copies, from the Duomo, Campanile and Baptistery. Some fine and interesting stuff, particularly original bronze panels from the Batistero doors, housed in nitrogen filled display cabinets to prevent deterioration, but allowing one to see the back of the panel and imagine in some way how they were created.

On passing a side street barber on the way back I decided to treat myself to a haircut. The Japanese gentleman before me was halfway through his when the door opened and a woman called the barber out. I don’t know what she said, but his face read: “your wife is leaving you, and taking all the furniture”. He disappeared into the street leaving us alone with the Japanese gentleman, who got more and more agitated as time passed, not wanting to leave with his hair halfcut on one side (and unpaid for, obviously). Eventually the barber returned with a big smile and carried on as before. The Japanese, not having any Italian, couldn’t say much. Only in Italy!

4th April. Florence.
Started with the Palazzo Vecchio this morning, whose crenellated tower is one of the most distinctive icons on the skyline. Originally the seat of government, it was taken over by Cosimo I as his private residence in the 16C, before he moved to a larger place over the river (as you do). They even renamed it from Pallazzo della Signoria to the Old Palace, in honour of his leaving. The main and most interesting hall, the Sala dei Cinquecento, had been taken over by a committee meeting of the Commune di Firenze during our visit, which seemed a bit rich as we had just paid to see it.

Next the Chiesa di Santa Croce, a fine basilica in which many of Italy’s famous sons are buried or remembered, including Galileo and Gugliemo Marconi, inventor of radio. As in the Palazzo Vecchio, the scaffolding and sheeting had got inside before us.
Lunch was at one of our better selected venues, in a side street. Il Cantastorie in the Via della Condotta served us Tuscan bread soup, pork with onions and apple pudding, all of it excellent, with wine and coffee came to €54.

Finally for the day, the Galleria degli Uffizi. This is reputedly one of the finest art museums in the world, but leaving the excellence of the art aside, it is certainly suffering from over exposure. To avoid queuing for an hour or more it is necessary to book in advance, incurring a €4 fee for the privilege, a total of €14 each. Once inside, large tour groups were constantly swamping the areas in front of important exhibits, tour guides droning on into their Bluetooth microphones. Add in the noisy school trips and the fraying tempers of the museum attendants trying to stop people taking photos and our cultural experience became something of a trial. If the summer heat was piled on top, we really think it might be an experience you would want to forget.

5th April. Florence.
A different side of the river this morning, Cosimo’s other pad, the Palazzo Pitti, built for the Pitti family, rivals of the Medici. We entered the Boboli Gardens from the entrance at Porta Romana, a short bus ride from the campsite. Included in the €10 ticket was a Porcelain museum, the Galleria del Costume, and the Museo Argenti, with an additional exhibition of Francesco Furini.

The Porcelain exhibition was in a building in the gardens, with good views from the terrace. Some fine stuff, including very unusual shell and silver creations.

On to the costume exhibition, and for someone who has very little interest in clothes a pleasant surprise, as it was very well presented with lots of historical context in English, plus the added attraction of walking through the extravagantly decorated palace rooms.

Lunch was a simple Panini and then we tackled the Silver Museum. This is a bit of a misnomer as it contains small works of art in almost every material you can imagine, ivory, onyx, glass, porcelain, coral, mother of pearl as well as gold and silver. We have seen a lot of “fine art” in our travels but this display on two floors contained some of the best we have seen. Some of the pieces are so finely and perfectly made that it exhausts my imagination as to how they were created.
There is a brief contemporary collection at the end of the display and to me it just looked crude and crass in comparison to the exquisite work that preceded it.

Finally, the Gallerina Palatina in the Royal Palace and the Galleria d'Arte Moderna. If you come in from the garden entrance, as we did, be warned that you have to exit the palace to get tickets for these and then go through security again.
The state rooms in the Royal Palace also came up tops for fabulous decoration and furnishings, the stuccoed, gilded and frescoed ceilings, plus wall hangings, chandeliers and furniture were all of a grandeur and quality we have not seen before.

The Gallery of modern art is also not what you might think, but contains art from the Renaissance onwards, up until the 1930’s. Some wonderful works that really draw you in and after all the religious art, good to see other subject matter.

6th April. Florence.
One more day, our trip to Florence is turning into something of a marathon, but Sue will not leave without seeing Michelangelo’s David in the flesh, so to speak, and he’s hiding in the Galleria dell Accademia.

Placed in a specially designed apse at the end of a gallery of Michelangelo’s unfinished work, his appearance certainly has an impact. A Japanese lady we had met earlier told us that her first sight of David had made her cry..., well, Sue certainly hung around making sure she had absorbed every detail and insisted on getting an illicit photograph.

He has been battered around over the centuries and much copied (you can even buy a drag queen version in bra and suspenders) and is now apparently in a very fragile state, narrowly escaping a violent physical attack from a museum visitor. Our tip is to go and see him whilst everyone else is having lunch.

Equally impressive to me was Michelangelo’s unfinished work of slaves - to see the huge slab that a statue comes from, the accuracy and consistency of even the first rough cuts, and then the perfect form emerging from the rock, is amazing.
Finally, we did the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, but after what had gone before, nothing to really excite our jaded eyes.

Our verdict on Florence.
Florence is more compact than we imagined, most of the main sights are within easy walking distance of each other, and the buses are plentiful and cheap. According to a local shop keeper, the crowds start at Easter and don’t abate until November. The only really quiet months are in the New Year before Easter. The crowds are a problem though if you want to enjoy yourselves.
The cost of all the tickets for the main attractions can mount up, even entry to the smaller churches is at least €3.50. There are no all-in-one passes and very few discounts. Credit cards are not accepted, so the amounts of cash held in vaults or moving around the city at night must be staggering.

Food was not that expensive and the shopkeepers and waiters that we met were friendly and helpful, a few words of the language I’m sure makes a difference.

If you only had one day, we would cross the Ponte Vecchio to see the Loggia della Signoria, the Duomo and the Batistero, then back across the river to the the Pitti Palace - you will get a more rounded view of the depth and breadth of the art and the history there, rather than visiting any other single monument. The trip to the top of the dome was worth the effort and David was yes, something special, if you have more time.

7th April.
Said farewell to Firenze and moved the 50 km to San Gimignano in the Val d'Elsa, a medieval walled town on the UNESCO World heritage list and distinguished by its 14 stone towers.
There is nowhere to park near the town, but there is a park and ride scheme to a coach park a kilometre away, and downhill from that there is a Camper Sosta called Santa Chiara - €22 for 24hrs, with electricity and a good service bay.

8th April.
The town itself is full of shops selling cheese and cured cinghiale (wild boar), pottery, leather and even alabaster products. The Piazza della Cisterna is the main square, steeply sloping with the central cisterna or well, and surrounded by 13-14C mansions and towers, all bearing the scars of innumerable repairs and alterations over the centuries. Well geared up for the tourist trade, but interesting, if you avoid the crowds.

Left Santa Chiara and found a suitable car park for the night near the Porta Nuova entrance to Colle di Val D'Elsa, another walled town combining a castle dating from the middle ages and Renaissance architecture. Walking around the medieval part after dark was extremely atmospheric, a labryinth of steep narrow streets, stairways and culverts.

9th April.
Had a longer walk around Colle di Val D'Elsa. The modern part of the town is down on the plain, but there is a glass sided lift, in a shaft hollowed out of the rock, which takes you down to car parks below. Today the town is famous for its crystal glass, producing 95% of Italy's output. There is an underground crystal museum, covering the history of glass production in Colle from the 14th Century onwards.

10th April.
To view Siena we found our way to the very pleasant Camping La Montagnola, 10 Km from the city (www.campingtoscana.it/montagnola) (GPS 43.2819N, 11.2189E). The campsite in town is closed and the camper sostas were €20 to park by the main road. The bus calls at the campsite at certain times during the day, otherwise it is a kilometre walk to Sovicille.

First stop was the Piazza del Campo, a huge square lined with palaces and mansions, but which is turned into a racecourse for a bi-annual horse race.
Next the Duomo, where a multiple ticket will get you entrance to the Museo Dell 'Opera, Cripta, Battistero, and Oratorio San Bernadino. The carved and inlaid marble floor in the cathedral was something different, though much of it is covered up. The original stained glass window from the duomo is beautifully displayed in the museum, and the famous Maesta in its own air conditioned room.
The Crypt was interesting in that the wall paintings were only discovered in 1999 and it took 3 years to excavate to the full extent. To my engineer’s eyes, some remarkable stainless steel structures now support the floor of the cathedral. We also had a look at the Museo Civico, but again to our jaded cultural eyes, not so much of interest.

From the Facciatone or façade at the top of the Museo dell' Opera we could see 5 huge mobile cranes in amongst the narrow streets. They were at the absolute limit of their extension and all linked by wires from their peaks. My time in a shipyard told me that someone was spending a serious amount of money keeping such cranes tied up like this, so I had to have a look.
A string of mobile catering vans with UK plates aroused my interest even more and soon we came up against a large gentleman with an earpiece who stopped us going any further. Yup, you guessed it, they were filming the next James Bond movie, a Quantum of Solace. Nice chap that he was, he sent us round the corner where we could "see the action".
Staring up at a narrow street we could see two complete false apartment sides built to blend in with the existing block, and cameras and ropes rigged from the cranes. After 30 minutes watching exacting preparations we were about to leave when swiftly the tension rose, they were definitely gearing up for something. Suddenly Daniel Craig, or his stuntman, jumped across the rooftops firing a gun (suspended from a rope of course). A split second behind him was a cameraman on another rope, to get the third person action shot.
Only trouble was he never made the other roof, smashing into the guttering at around knee level. Ouch! They hauled him back none too gently and shortly afterwards the heavies arrived and cleared us all away, saying it was too dangerous - no kidding!

One last item on the list, the Oratorio, then coffee and tarts before wandering back through the town for the bus.

11th April. Sovicille.
Recuperation day.

12th April.
- a name with a certain ring to it. Introduced to us by a wine waiter in a Luzern Pizzeria, it was memorable enough to warrant a visit when it appeared on our map.

With a quick stop at Pienza, by mid afternoon we had reached this ancient town, perched on a hilltop 600m above sea level. Famous for its wine the world over, it reached the peak of its power and social importance in the 16th Century. Nowadays there are many cultural festivals during the season, including the rather iffy practice of rolling 80kg wine barrels down its steep and narrow streets.
Motorhome friendly, there is a large sosta next to the bus station, with room for 30 vans and a lovely view over the countryside. €10 for 24 hrs, water and waste dump shared with the tour coaches.

After a scenic walk around we did some wine tasting, and asked the vendor for a restaurant recommendation. She did us proud – it’s a long time since we've been in an eating house that packed them in so tight, but the food was worth it. Sue had tagliatelle with truffles, mine came with tomato sauce, followed by a sirloin steak hacked from a huge side of beef in front of our eyes.
The bill is added up on the paper tablecloth, but according to our Italian table partners, the proprietor never misses a trick and has been known to throw a large calculator at anyone who wants to argue! Osteria Acquacheta (http://www.acquacheta.eu/) great food, value and buzz.

Staggering down the street, (from the weight of food consumed, of course) we came across Caffe Poliziano, which claims to have been in business since 1868. It is a classy place with marble counters, wood panelling and mirrors, plus journals and newspapers and a vast collection of Scottish malts.

Hearing English voices we were soon talking to couple from Canada, who had emigrated from Jersey in the late 60's. Micky had been a musician and recording engineer and was well interested in the band (2 Italians and a white haired German) who had a fair stab at Lou Reed, Eric Clapton and others from 60's & 70's.
When anybody lends us half an ear we do tend to try and persuade them to give up work and go travelling - I hope Liz has recovered! My wallet is still in recovery after paying for those malt whiskies, but it was a great night.

13th April.
A late start this morning, more lunch than colazione, heads still in working order but only just.
The roads were quiet, being Sunday, and just outside Castiglione del Largo we found a nice lakeside Parking Sosta by a small marina and yacht club.
Ever curious, we did a circuit of Lake Trasimeno but didn't find any other free park ups, the only contender - with access to the water - had a newly installed height barrier! On the North shore there was the anticipated development of hotels, bars and a concrete esplanade, though with some designated motorhome parking.
So, back to the yacht club.

14th April.
I was tempted to linger, a warm sun was out and glinting on the water, but Sue had other ideas. We had a quick look at Perugia, finding a large out of town car park (GPS 43.0946N, 12.3855E) and getting the (No 12) bus in. The main attractions, being Monday, were closed. (Oops!)
15th April.
Arrived in Bastia, near Assisi, late in the afternoon. There is a Camper Service area here but it was very awkwardly designed and the Camper sign had been obliterated with angry graffiti. Not a good feel about the place so we serviced the van and left, searching out Camping Fontemaggio (GPS 43.0635N, 12.6332E), high up on the east side of Assisi.
Only ½ km from the Porta Cappuccini entrance to the city, the pitches here are terraced into the hillside and lined with olive trees, some with a fantastic view of the plain below - a snip at €17.50 a night. There is also a "cellar" restaurant.

16th April.
We awoke to a beautiful morning, but as we walked into town the sky blackened with clouds - with perfect timing they rent themselves asunder at the city gate. We took refuge from the deluge in the nearest café and had an early lunch.

Assisi is beautifully maintained and far less tacky than you might think. Its steep, narrow upper streets are as picturesque as you will see anywhere. A lot of restoration is still going on of course, but immaculately done stonework, with copper guttering and wrought iron wall fittings.
I do wonder though whether they can overdo things just a little bit - how many underwater LED lights does an ancient water trough really require?
The main attractions, the two churches of the Basilica di San Francesco are built one on top of the other and are free to enter, as is the museum - which makes a pleasant change. Originally stark and austere they were embellished from the end of the 14th Century by artists who came from Venice and Rome. The restoration from the 1997 earthquake is superb.
The tomb of St Francis in the crypt is on a grand scale, with some clever and sophisticated lighting and is very impressive, but to my eyes the whole arrangement is a bit too close to Santa Claus grotto. Nonetheless it is obviously adored and venerated by hordes of people.
It's a long steep walk back up to the campsite but in the tiny cobbled streetsthere are some inviting little grocery and pastry shops in which to take a breather.