Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer in Ireland

Views of Summer in Ireland
(please click on this mosaic for a larger version - from top left to bottom right: cow jam at Newgrange; the River Boyne; seagull; Kilmainham Jail Dublin; Annagassan Fishing Harbour; King John's Castle Carlingford)

Well, it's summer in Ireland. My parents are here for about 3 weeks, touring all around Ireland during the weeks and spending the weekends with Clare and I. So we're hitting the tourist trail and doing some new stuff, some old stuff, and discovering some new places. The temperature has even hit about 26c, but only for an hour or two on a couple of days. Then it went back to cool, rainy days, so you learn to make the most of what you get. We've been to Newgrange again, so different to our visit on the winter solstice last year (nb. link to our story from then - we've been officially published on the Newgrange website!) We've been on the double decker bus tour round Dublin. We've driven around the countryside - a lot! And perhaps one of the best things, the Friday night "trad music" session at our local pub is well and truly up and running and really quite good.
Clare says "I'm finally staying at home on a wet (driving rain and wind) summer day to at least get my MBA thesis proposal done. Not progressing well at all. Just too many things happening at work and at home. I'm behind with my blog stories too! It reached 21-26c for most of last week, the weekend and this week until yesterday. People were lying on the beach in togs, swimming and attempting to boogie board (with no surf). It was still 19c at 11.30pm at night. Complete record. People were sitting on our small beach (mud flat) with deck chairs and togs and eskies on Sunday. Blue skies and extremely hot by Irish standards. Sue and Dave (Joe's parents) were still wearing jumpers as it was 21c! It's actually howling wind and pouring rain from 4 directions at once tonight. Just totally pissing down here for the last few hours. Our front window was bending visibly in the wind and air pressure. Lets hope the sunny weather comes back It's really lovely when it comes! I had a deer slaughtering factory audit this week, on an estate that has the date AD462 on its crest. I questioned Peter (my boss) about this, asking how can the estate be from before St. Patrick’s time? Peter said that St. Patrick was a slave, so someone had to enslave him and since that happened in Downpatrick where this estate is, whoever owned this estate in AD 462 probably enslaved St. Patrick! Turned out to be true - it was the estate where St. Patrick had been enslaved in 500AD or similar. How's that for some history?"
Joe says "We get light until almost 11pm now, unless it's raining buckets and the clouds have blocked the sun. People here are complaining about the humidity - try a summer week in Queensland! I'm back at work now after our trip to Italy, which was so, so good. We're going back to London again for the bank holiday weekend in August - still plenty of bargain seats on Ryanair. Hope you're having a nice winter in Australia!"

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A week in Tuscany - Part 2

Photo Link: <Tuscany photos>
A week in Tuscany - Part 2... (this is a pretty long blog entry, our longest story so far). You'll need to allow a few minutes for this one!
Tuesday means day of rest... We had mascarpone and gorgonzola over crusty bread for breakfast. Yummy!!! Then we headed off to the local CO-OP Supermarket in Radda to fill our fridge and cupboard with supplies (AWESOME pesto!) And it just bucketed down - like 4pm on a November afternoon in Brisbane. We'd all had enough of touristing in hill towns for a day, so we chose to stay at home (reading, taking photos, lying around the villa) whilst Chris & Shay walked through the countryside for 4 hrs and eventually got to Radda. Hmmm, I think there may have been some navigation issues there! We found them in the gelateria in Radda, and joined them there!
Wednesday means Siena... We got up at what seemed like the crack of dawn for the Siena Markets - not really farmers markets as in France though. The markets are one of the largest in Tuscany and surround the Fortezza Medicea. Lesson to be learned – DO NOT try and drive into Siena on a Wednesday (Market Day) – it’s probably difficult at the best of times, but after an hour of negotiating our way around the morning traffic and Italian traffic cops waving us on, we eventually found an illegal park well outside the city walls. It didn’t end up being too far from the town anyway (thanks to the Fontebranda escalator), and we were soon in the heart of gothic Siena with it’s amazing steep cobbled laneways and buildings crammed with history & tradition. The markets had loads of clothing, fabrics, household & leather goods at cheap Euro prices. And we eventually found the small food section, which was very good and fresh, it has to be said. The cappucino at Cafe Nannini (€1.10 – various locations in Siena), was very good. Strolled around then had a round of 4 drinks (about €18) at one of the terrace cafes on Piazza Del Campo, the very centre of tourist Siena. Joe checked out the Torture Museum (€8): "this series of slightly dank old chambers off a steep cobbled laneway made you glad you weren't around back then – full of suitably nasty implements and spooky music."
Siena is a true walled city, even today the vast majority of the town lives behind the walls, all 53,000 of them. The plague hit in 1348 and took out 100,000 people. The city has always been in competition with Rome, and then Florence for power and control. Clare gave the tower (Torre del Mangia, 102 metres) a miss here, but we did see:
- Piazzo del Campo
- Battistero di san Giovanni
- Santa Maria Della Scala
- Museo Archeologico
- Palazzo Chigo-Saracini
- Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte (Oratory of St Catherine of the night)
There is just so much to see in Siena and everything is within walking distance & very little effort (once you've parked your car and are within the city walls). We would go back in a flash. The best place we saw was the Santa Maria Della Scala, founded in the 1100's as a hospice for pilgrims, and a working hospital for 1000 years (until the 1990's), but now a museum/art gallery with a difference. The halls on the entry level have frescos depicting activity in the hospital in the 1400-1500's. Amazing. The old artworks & collectables include a large painting of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, quite barbaric. Then you descend into the many floors below (with sloping tunnels), which include the Museo Archeologico and the Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte, amongst many other chapels and churches of secret societies. Clare: "St Catherines head is in a glass case down there (in the Oratario di Santa Caterina della Notte), and it's quite creepy with a very real ‘presence’ - I felt that her spirit (soul?) was there as well." We got sooooo soaked walking back to the car. We roasted a free range chook for dinner, with all the trimmings (Slow Food)... with some more Chianti Classico vino!
Thursday means Volterra... Volterra was founded by the Etruscan (ie. Tuscan) people long before the Romans got organised. The Romans didn't take the town until 260BC. It also took the Florentine empire in the 1360’s a long while to conquer them - the extreme geography certainly helped. Their heyday was in the middle ages though. The town (village?) is so interesting and has so many shops with interesting things to buy & restaurants full of yummy food. And the place didn't seem overrun by tourists either. A few buses piled in after lunch but still you hardly noticed them - not like San Gimignano, Siena or Florence. So many churches and chapels, all with doors open, and free. Even after days of churches these were all very interesting and each one different to the one before, Clare: "I couldn’t even start to describe all of the architecture styles, variations and eras (I think epochs would be more accurate here)." There's also a Roman theatre (pretty intact), one of the best Etruscan museums in Italy (all local findings) and would you believe a 14th Century jail that is still working today and has armed guards walking the walls between the turrets!!! Joe: "Volterra had an emphasis on the gothic, with yet another torture museum, to shops full of fake gargoyle statues, knives & Samurai swords and other dungeons/dragons related items. I even bought a great moulded skull with drink coasters embedded in the head... A nice touch for Halloween!" All up, a truly excellent way to spend the day. The weather held out as well, and we returned to the villa for a lamb bbq in the courtyard with appetisers, salads, many, many side dishes, and probably a dessert and definitely a few cheeses as well. And of course, a range of wines and spirits for each course.
Friday means Florence... We braved the elements and staggering volume of tourists and hit Florence (it had to be done!) Much to our surprise we had very few navigational issues and even less parking issues, but we did hit weather issues. So we strolled from our carpark into Florence at a reasonably early hour, carefully avoiding Gucci & Prada, and the tourist cafes with 5 Euro pizza slices, and we decided to join the queue (about an hour) for The Uffizi Gallery. We chatted with a student from Melbourne while we were waiting. Was it worth it? Clare: "Well we've seen the Medici family art collection now - but really I much preferred Catherine the Great's collection (The Hermitage in St Petersburg) and everything we saw in Madrid (and we didn't see everything in Madrid, art wise, by a long shot). The medieval artists were just so limited in the subject matter (seemingly about 4 topics all up) and styles (two styles - medieval church art and Medici portraits) and materials used (oil). Bring on the Renaissance and the Impressionists ASAP!" Joe: "Look, I like art as much as the next man, but the Uffizi was full of cherubs, angels, dying Saints, etc, etc. Call me an art heathen but lot of blokes were just ducking for the exit door here. Give me some Andy Warhol - you can only take so much medieval art!" Yet another bloody storm hit within minutes of getting out of the Uffizi, but we'd found the Trattoria Anita by then, way down a dark side street beyond the many Florentine tourists, just in the nick of time. Local food at local prices. In the afternoon we checked out the streets of Florence and took silly photos with the David replica, etc, etc. Chris & Shay got further afield in Florence and saw the original David statue at Galleria dell'Accademia (there are a number of copies), and went up the dome of the Duomo (Cathedral). Joe convinced Clare not to even try that one due to elevation issues (maybe she needs some therapy). For dinner we tried the nearest village and had some very traditional local fare at the Ristorante Malborghetto in Lecchi. Our final night at the villa :(
Saturday means "Disney" Pisa & Ryan's Lair... We cleared out quite early and hit the road (Pi-Fi highway) heading for The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Most of a Disney cruise liner (the first one EVER to Europe) had the same idea. So the Americans, fresh from their Mickey Mouse breakfast buffet, were pursued by quite literally a tribe of illegal immigrant watch sellers flogging fake Rolexes (they must have been bussed in from Florence). So here we were at Pisa, surrounded by a million people. The tower is leaning quite amazingly, and well worth a look, although there isn't a whole lot else to see in Pisa. So we went and found a pizza instead. After some hijinks trying to fill up the Alfa with diesel (during a whopping great storm), we finally got to the airport, right in the town. Joe very, very nearly missed the Ryanair flight back to Dublin!!! (too much daydreaming) Clare had to get the crew to page him and 11 others who were missing. It has to be said that the flight hadn't come up on the board inside the terminal, BUT STILL - bloody lucky Joe, the plane would have gone without you - it was Ryanair after all!
We give Italy 10 out of 10. And without a shadow of a doubt, the best food in the world!

Monday, June 04, 2007

A week in Tuscany - Part 1

Florence, Italy

flickr photo link: <Tuscany, May-Jun 07>
25 May 07 FR9908 DUB/PSA 2005/2350
02 Jun 07 FR9907 PSA/DUB 1730/1915
A week in Tuscany - Part 1... (this is a pretty long blog entry, our longest story so far). You'll need to allow a few minutes for this one!
Crusty Italian bread toasted with Chianti extra virgin olive oil, topped with fresh local asparagus and fried eggs with runny yolks... Washing up seems a pleasure after a breakfast like that. This was our first “farmhouse” meal at La Cassucia 1 (€605/week), our fantastic villa situated on the winding road between Radda and Lecchi in Chianti, Tuscany. The 2 bedroom villa had it's own olive grove, and as we found out, a wild pig that came around at night to root out yummy things in the ground. Yes, the Vogue stories and movies are right. From the excellent local produce & wines (the tomatoes and basil really taste better than home, wherever your home is), to the incredible places to visit (or just hang out at the villa), there’s a lot to write about this week.
Before we start, I want to thank Clare for buying me the Jack Wolf lightweight rain jacket with hood, substantially discounted at approx. €26 at the outdoor clothing store in Dundalk (a few weeks back). Living & travelling in Europe has proven to us time after time that weather here will always bring the unexpected, so whilst we’d expected 25c-30c for our week in Italy (from the forecasts), in fact we had day after day of quite cool and rainy conditions. The same thing happened in Madrid over Easter too. We just wish that Brisbane could have a couple of weeks of this weather!
Friday Night... I guess we should have realised about the impending weather as we pitched through a series of storms across France on our 2 ½ hour Ryanair flight from Dublin to Pisa (€125 return), but we landed ok and were soon into our Hertz Rental Car (about €230 plus upgrade). I happily upgraded this to a 5 door Alfa Romeo 147 (Turbo Diesel), which hugged the mountain roads in Tuscany very nicely. Our hotel in Pisa, Accademia Palace Hotel (€95) was a little difficult to find after midnight, but mainly because we didn't know the roads and didn't have a clear map. I think we actually drove very close to it in the process of being lost, but we found it in the end and it turned out to be quite comfortable and had a good breakfast included.
Saturday means Chianti... We drove off towards Chianti following our AA road map - best purchase we made before leaving Ireland. And we (well, Clare), got a local map from the hotel reception of how to get from the hotel to the main Pi-Fi highway - Pisa to Florence. We drove through the LA style outer suburbs of Pisa (flat and boring) towards the hills of Chianti. We drove through towns like Poggibonsi, until we got to Castellina in Chianti. Chianti being a wine producing region of central Tuscany that epitomises what everyone thinks is the image of "Tuscany". We got there at about 11.30am and Clare realised there was a farmers market and we should buy some fresh food before the shops shut for the weekend. No 24 hour trading here - it's all Slow Food and the better for it. What we found were:
- Farmer’s stalls with fresh asparagus and zucchinis with flowers still attached.
- Roast chickens, pig, & wonderful salamis.
- Artichokes and fennel growing wild in over grown orchards of peach and apricots.
- Red poppies by the roadsides.
- Luscious coconut and hazelnut gelati.
We drove on to Radda in Chianti (a 16th Century hilltop town), parked the car and had a lunch of rocket with walnuts & goats cheese with glasses of the local red & white wine. At 4pm we arrived at the villa and met the caretaker who spoke absolutely no English, and we spoke no Italian, but we got the message about all aspects of the villa - except the rubbish collection system (never quite understood that one!) So our images from that day were:
- Cool green forests (behind the villa).
- Hillsides full of olive groves, vineyards (in front of the villa).
- Blooming highly scented roses among the vines.
- Rosemary, almonds and sage in the garden.
- Geraniums in terracotta boxes on every window sill.
- Crusty bread and olive oil (from the market).
- Blue butterflies landing on pink pastel wild flowers.
- Cuckoos (calling in the afternoons).
- Green lizards sunning on the terrace (we don’t see many lizards in Ireland, but we had at least 5 species in our Wavell Heights backyard).
- Pecorino cheese grated over the eggs and asparagus (for Sunday breakfast - copied the Vogue cover exactly!)
- Wild boars rooting around amongst the olive groves (well that was a few nights later in the rain).
After settling in and unpacking, we ended up getting a giant pizza from Radda and sat in our kitchen and had dinner.
Sunday means San Gimignano... The next day (after the above mentioned breakfast) we drove off to collect Chris & Shay from the bus in Siena. We circumnavigated the town at least twice looking for the central bus station, and eventually realised much of the town was cordoned off due to an impending local soccer match (the home team arrived by coach with police escorts and horns blazing). By this point, torrential rain was coming down, the first of many downpours that week. Clare eventually collected them from the Café Antico, and we set out for some sightseeing. San Gimignano - a brief history lesson:
- Saved from Attila the Hun in 1199.
- Wiped out by the plague in 1348.
- Still has frescos of Saint Bartholomew being skinned alive then beheaded in Palazzo Comunale.
- Now in 2007 a major Tuscan tourist town famous for its 72 towers - well, less than that now, but still pretty damned interesting.
The "Siena" storm hit with hail, thunder and lightening cracking over the soaring terracotta towers. Joe decided to peruse the organic wine stores below the tower (Pinacoteca Torre) while Chris, Shay and Clare ventured upwards. About a quarter of the way up Clare remembered that she didn't like heights, a bit late as she'd paid her 5 Euros! With Chris’s help, Clare got all the way up until the stairs turned into a wooden ladder. Chris took some shots with the camera and Clare noticed that birds were nesting in the holes that had been used for firing arrows. Other memories from that day were:
- Cats asleep in doorways (yes of course Clare took pics).
- Torture museums (Joe has to explain that one).
- Lot of tourists and car parks!
Later on in Radda, we stumbled onto a local wine festival held in the underground catacombs. Clare, Chris & Shay had a solid session tasting the wines of the Chianti Classico "Black Rooster" producers (Joe was driving). Too much red wine, stumble, stopped for pizza, stumble, etc, etc...
Monday means Monte... Today we went to 3 historic hilltop towns that started with Monte...
Monte No. 1: Montalcino
We arrived as the town was just awaking from seista to sun showers and sudden downpours that were to characterise the day. Black clad ladies of the village were sitting in the sun and there were very few tourists. This was a village built below a 14th century Fortezza (fortress) - complete with turrets watching over the hills and dales of the Orcia valley below. Between the turrets there were holes designed for the throwing of boiling oil on those below. A bit scary - heights & rotting floor boards wise - but the view was spectacular; undulating wheat fields and pencil pines leading to ancient villas from Roman times straight out of the movie "Gladiator" (one of Clare's Russell favourites!) Wonderful gelati, as usual (I think we tried the gelati in most towns we visited!)
Monte No. 2: Monticchiello
A small hilltop walled village, windswept and blustered by showers (ok, it was a downpour!) So we took shelter in the village church with soaring vaulted ceilings and partially restored frescos. Joe did some Gregorian chants, not bad. We walked around, in the rain, then gave up with rainbows arching over the fields of wheat. Really one of Clare's best photos of the trip. Back to the car.
Monte No. 3: Montepulciano
A stunning small town of 14,000 people built upon a small volcanic ridge. It was originally an Etruscan fort with still intact burial chambers under the wine bars - sounds like the underground city of Edinburgh but less haunted!!! We missed seeing these, but did watch the ever increasing showers rolling in, from the windows of Caffe Poliziano (1868). The caffe fredo (iced coffee) and 4 types of chocolate cannoli were to die for (total about €15). The renaissance architecture was built by the Florence Medici's in the 1400’s and the gothic structures were from the previous Siena based administration, such as the 13th century gothic Palazzo Comunale on the Piazza Grande at the towns highest point. Just before another very heavy downpour, we scored the last table at Osteria dell’Acquacheta, whose specialty was 2 kg ribs of beef t-bone, just seared in a wood fired oven. No we didn't have it, nor did anyone anyone at our table (but the gnocchi and other Italian foods were bloody good!) American tourists came in from the rain looking for tables and were told to come back in an hour. Satisfied, we walked back to the car in the pouring rain and drove back to Chianti along deserted motorways.
Photo Link: <Tuscany photos>
... Continued in Part 2...