Week 21

From Venice we headed back to Bergamo, to meet up with Phil, Eunyoung and Euon. We stayed the night just outside the town, in Stezzano, at a stellplatz that turned out to be a car park, though there were motorhome services, so we could get fresh water and dispose of the waste. Just up the road was a restaurant in a 2* hotel, that was perfect for us. There was a simple menu of the day (three courses plus wine and water for 9 euros)and staff that spoke some English and were happy to mix and match the menu to suit us.

The boys were also thrilled to find that there was a Turkish toilet for the men. You can imagine how many times they went to the loo during the course of the meal and they had such interesting tales to tell afterwards; precise details of balancing acts and success rates. At one point it all went horribly wrong and Gary had to go and sort it out, the joys of fatherhood. It was a highlight of the boys’ trip!!

The hotel we stayed at with Phil, Eunyoung and Euon, was lovely. The rooms were huge and the four of us had two bedrooms, a bathroom and a large lobby area. More importantly, there were two televisions, but unfortunately, the only channels that were in English were the BBC news and CNN. Still, the boys were happy enough to watch Cartoon Network in Italian.

We went to Milan on the train and the journey there was quite uneventful. It seems a very “grown up” city; great for shopping, the arts and, of course, opera, but it didn’t seem to have much individual character or warmth.

We walked from the station to the Duomo, only to find it shrouded in scaffolding and protective material, for cleaning and renovation. The spires, which had been finished looked magnificent, peeping above the building works. I should imagine that when the sun is shining on the white façade it would be blindingly stunning.

The boys are always intrigued by street mime artists, and there were plenty of them to watch. I don’t know how they keep up the act for so long. These two were very approachable, and so we got some photos.

The journey back to Bergamo was not as smooth as it could have been! We arrived at the station half an hour before the train was due to depart and Gary and Phil went off to get some tickets. After about ten minutes, Phil came back to say (without a trace of irony) that they were in the fast ticket queue and it would be at least another ten minutes before it would be their turn at the machine. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived with tickets, we had two minutes in which to get the train, but it wasn’t up on the departure board. A man told us the platform and we ran towards it (it was naturally at the other end of the station) in and out of crowds of people, only to see the back lights of the departing train. We went to ask at the information booth the time of the next train, but he shut up shop as soon as we got there. It was now 5.45pm and we eventually found that the next train was at 6.40pm. We decided to make the best of a bad job and eat, but were told that outside the station, the restaurants were quite a walk, and as we couldn’t risk missing the next train, we ate at the station.

It’s hard to imagine that they would microwave cold pizza in Italy, but they did. It was as awful as it sounds!

When the 7.20pm train was cancelled, things started to go a bit downhill. The children were getting tired and so were we, but we could do nothing except wait on the platform with thousands of other people. The next train wasn’t for another hour.

Thankfully we found out the platform number and got on the train in good time. It wasn’t even that crowded. When it didn’t go at 8.20, we thought it a bit odd. When at 8.45pm the lights all went off and, following an announcement that obviously meant nothing to us, everyone got off the train, we couldn’t believe it. We just followed the crowd and got on a train at the opposite end of the station, not particularly caring where it was going to as long as we got out of Milan! We eventually got back to Bergamo at 10pm just in time to get the last bus back to the hotel that left at 10.02pm. The boys slept well that night!!

The next day we braved the train again and went to Lake Lecco. The weather was perfect and we could see right across the lake. At the height of the season, it must be packed with tourists, but in late October the streets were just comfortably full of very stylish Italians.

Having been to a city and a lake, Phil thought it would be good to go to a small village in the hills and we picked San Pellegrino famous for the water. It was a Sunday and finding the bus stop was not that easy, but we managed!

It is a lovely spa town, and we went and saw the civic building above it that features on all the bottles of water. Even though I cropped the top of it, I thought you might like to see it, to compare it to the drawing when you are next in the supermarket!

We were not the only visitors in town that day. San Pellegrino was hosting an Alpine choir and when we first arrived, there were lots and lots of men in Alpine hats. The final ceremony was at midday and after that the streets cleared as the choir went to ease their throats in the local bars and restaurants, occasionally spilling out into the streets to be photographed!

Week 22

It was Phil and Eunyoung’s last day and we still hadn’t actually seen Bergamo’s old town, so we decided to spend a few hours there. It sits high on the hill, towering over the new town (which is a fairly nondescript modern town with plenty of shops but little character).

We were told that to get to it we had to get a bus to the centre and then the funicular to the top. Sometimes, funiculars are fine and you get dragged slowly but surely to the top. Other times, of course, you get the general impression that the cables feel that they have been pulling too much weight for far too long and they have frankly had enough. No prizes for guessing which sort we were on. It would probably have been OK if one of our number hadn’t just mentioned a dislike (aka morbid fear) of funicular railways. But, once the idea was in our minds, every shriek and shudder sounded evermore ominous and I think we were all pretty glad when the three minute journey came to an end and we could all get off (quickly!)

The old town is small with lots of quaint, narrow streets bustling with people and full of interesting and unusual things, a complete contrast to the new town.

There is also an impressive main square which I have included as a picture, although a lot of the squares do look rather similar! Whilst we do take photos of the small streets, they tend to be dark as well as small and the pictures often turn out to be so dark you can hardly see them, not ideal for the website!

The views from the top were marvellous and best of all we could see the bus for the station, which meant that we didn’t have to take the creaking funicular down the hill. Hurrah!

Gary had just finished reading The Broker by John Grisham which was set in Bologna and, as we were fairly close by, we decided to visit the town and see it for ourselves. Heavily under the influence of Mr Grisham, we made the long trip to the Sanctuary, a church which is 2kms up a very steep hill. The views would have been fantastic, if it hadn’t been so foggy you could hardly see up the street, never mind over the city!

Bologna is famous for the porticoed buildings, allegedly there are 40 kms of them, which protect the people from both the sun and rain, and make it easy to get around. There is a maze of streets and it really seems as if it has been lifted from a marvellous picture book of “Life in Italy as You Hope it Might Be”. The people are very friendly and seem very content with life.

The main square is enormous and is dominated by Basilica di san Petronnio. Through the church runs a meridian line onto which the sun shines at noon each day, travelling up and down the line depending on the time of year. Well, actually it is at 1.16pm and not noon, because of the clocks going forward an hour for the summer and also the correcting factor of the Earth taking a few minutes longer than 24 hours to go round the sun, which isn’t corrected by Leap Years, but by non leap centuries. I wish I had the book to hand and then this would make more sense. But hopefully you get the general gist of it!

Also, in the square are photographs of the people from Bologna executed by the Nazis for being dissidents of varying sorts. A poignant memorial and I hope that the photograph gives some clue of this fitting reminder. To commemorate those who died in more recent bombings in the city is a perspex plaque giving all the names and ages of the people. Shocking. The people of Bologna, for all their relaxed lifestyle and liberal attitude, do not shirk from facing up to the horrors of life and acknowledging that obscene events do happen.

I would thoroughly recommend Bologna as a place to visit and if you do, I will let you have the name of the best restaurant we have been to in Italy. Wonderful!

We could hardly go to Italy without visiting Pisa, so we went.

There isn’t a great deal there apart from the Leaning Tower, which is situated in the Field of Miracles, with the Duomo and the Baptistry and they don’t look too straight either! I didn’t know that Galileo had performed experiments from the top about how far and how quickly objects could fall. I suppose for that it is the ideal building!

The odd thing about the Leaning Tower is that it doesn’t appear to lean consistently and the top section seems straighter than the middle bit. We could have walked up to the top, but for several reasons didn’t. I didn’t fancy it at all as I am not the best at heights and a skew whiff height is not my idea of fun. Then, we found that Rory was not old enough to go up it anyway. Josh was really keen, until he read the warning notices about how dangerous it was, how open certain sections were, and under 12’s had to hold the hand of an adult at all times. Gary was put off by the sheer number of steps and…the cost.

I took some photos instead.

It is one of the seven wonders of the world, we could hardly have missed it out of the trip, but when you are there, it looks just like the pictures, but doesn’t really add anything to them.

November 2005

Week 23

When we left Pisa, we decided to have lunch at a village en route to Florence. Well, we passed through lots of villages and small towns, but none of them had any restaurants that were open. There was the occasional ice cream parlour that the boys were keen to try but nothing more substantial.

Then, we spotted what looked to be a promising place that had plenty of cars outside. Parking was not easy so we parked up the road and I was sent off to check it out. It wasn’t a restaurant, but a tobacconist cum bakery cum bar cum ice cream parlour cum one armed bandit arcade, in fact anything you care to mention other than a restaurant!!

I decided to get some rolls and some lovely looking cakes. Of course, the rolls had sold out hours before and I had the choice of two loaves of bread. So, I came back to the motorhome with a kilo of bread and four cream cakes. We had the bread with ham and cheese, it tasted great!

We got to the campsite in Florence about six o’clock and it was dark but the site had magnificent views over the city and the lights were a sight to behold. We could also smell the olive trees throughout the grounds and the next morning, the boys were delighted to be able to pick them straight off the tree. They hadn’t seen them growing before. Rory loves olives, so we let him pick and eat one straight off the tree. They had thousands, so I hope they didn’t mind sparing one for him.

The campsite was next to the Michelangelo Piazza with the stunning statue of Michelangelo that I have included as a picture, it looked just amazing.

Supper was not a great success; the restaurant was just across the road, but unfortunately, we arrived just after a coach load of Japanese tourists, who sat in the dining room. We were, begrudgingly, offered a table in the small bar right next to the door which remained open despite the cold weather, so the waiters could go in and out to serve the fortunate Japanese tourists! Well, it was better than nothing, but only just.

In the morning we walked into the city, it only took about fifteen minutes and it was a beautiful morning. Our first stop was the Duomo (the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). The double shelled dome was constructed by Brunelleschi, some years after the cathedral itself was built, using a system of self supporting bricks. It seems incredible that one man could have such vision and even more incredible that it actually stays up!

The relief works on the bronze doors of the Baptistry are also magnificent. Apparently, there was fierce competition amongst the artists of the day to be selected Michelangelo being one of the successful ones. I hadn’t realised that it was Michelangelo who re-invented perspective; it had been used by the Romans but then had been forgotten.

In the Uffizi is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, so we went to see the original, having seen so many copies. It is beautiful, but not as brightly coloured as the populist copies. Throughout the trip, Josh was very worried and we couldn’t make out why. It turned out it was because he had his penknife in his pocket and he hadn’t handed it in to the security guard, so he spent the whole time thinking he was going to get arrested. However, the visit passed without incident!! The boys quite liked the gory pictures, but art en masse doesn’t really do much for them.

There was just so much to see in Florence, I could have easily spent a fortnight there, but we had to be in Rome for 10th November, so had to move on. As we were meeting Tricia and Jamie in Rome on 19th we decided to do it in two parts, with a trip to the countryside in between.

To begin with we did a bus tour of the city just to get our bearings. The audio guides supposedly worked by plugging earphones into a socket and then choosing the right language, but the sockets were a bit variable. As the commentary was only at important buildings and monuments it was hard to judge if the silence was intended or because of the socket. I missed the Colosseum and the Vatican, so after the first tour we went around again. It was a good way to see all the major sights, though.

The next day, we set off on foot and went to the Ancient City, Colosseum and the Vatican. We had intended to go into the Colosseum, but found out that the boys got in free if we had some ID on us, which we didn’t, so we decided to do it another day, but luckily I took some pictures of the outside, as a subsequent instalment will explain.

At the Vatican, we were sorry to find out that the Vatican Museum (and, therefore, the Sistine Chapel) had closed at 12.20, but we were still able to see St Peter’s Basilica, reputedly built over the tomb of St Peter the disciple.

We have found that using a guide greatly increases not only our understanding of what we are seeing, but usually makes the visit much more enjoyable. On this occasion, Debbie offered her services and we were glad to accept. She took us on an “Art and History” tour of the Basilica and it lasted over two hours. It was brilliant.

We saw the tomb of John Paul II and the other popes, who are lying in the original basilica over which the “modern” basilica was built. Michelangelo’s magnificent and heartbreaking Pieta, the only signed piece that he did is also there. He was only 25 when he made the piece and the story has it that he overheard a bystander looking at it and commenting “Michelangelo didn’t actually do it himself” so the next day he took his chisel and carved his name over Mary’s sash, right on the front of the sculpture, so there was no doubt about it!

The “miraculous” body of John XXIII is also on show as when the tomb was opened it was found that his body had not decomposed, in Catholicism, this can taken as evidence of the eligibility of the person for sainthood. It truly is remarkable. His face is shown and it really does look as if he is just asleep. I thought that it would be the dark leathery (chemically preserved) look that we are used to, but no, it just looks like ordinary skin, albeit a bit pale.

Another interesting feature of the church is that the “paintings” are invariably glass mosaics, although they look just like real paintings, unless the light catches them and you can see the tiny pieces of glass reflected in the beam.

This is only some of the wonders that Debbie pointed out to us. She was unfailingly patient while we (slowly) worked out the Roman numerals and had a good, understated sense of humour. If you are planning a trip, I would certainly recommend her as an art historian tour guide. Her e mail address is debinrome@yahoo.it.

13th November 2005

Week 24

We decided to leave Rome for a few days and see what the surrounding towns and villages were liked. We got the map out and saw that both Aprilia and Frascati were fairly close and Gary was keen to see them both. Just before we went away, he sold his Aprilia motorbike, he knew it was for the best, but nonetheless was sad to see it go. Frascati, of course, needs no explanation, it is the home of astrophysics, and I think they make wine as well!

Aprilia was an industrial town. There was nothing inherently dreadful about it, but it was just uninspiring and even Gary didn’t want to stay, although he did waiver when he saw what might have been a motorcycle factory, but we were on the road out of town by that time. Whew!

Frascati was entirely different. It is a very busy small town. We arrived about six o’clock and the whole town seemed to be thronging in the central square. The traffic was engaged in a good humoured bedlam, blaring horns and music mingling with shouting and general hubbub.

We thought that it would be very quiet and that we would just find a quiet spot to stay for the night. They don’t do quiet in Frascati; as we were to find out.

Tourist Information directed me to the Traffic Police to check if it was all right to stay in the motorhome overnight in a parking place, should one ever become free. No problem, as long as we paid the parking fees, which stopped between 8pm and 8am and even more helpfully they told us where we were likely to find spaces. So we were sorted. The parking was in a street off the square with breathtaking views over Rome.

We walked into town, only about quarter of a mile, and bumped into an English physicist who kindly recommended a good restaurant in town. The food was excellent and the place was full of Italians, always a good sign.

Back in the motorhome, we settled down for a game of cards and a goodnight’s sleep, just as the local kids came out for a night’s socialising. Naturally they chose a road that gave spectacular, romantic, views over Rome (see photo) away from the eyes of the rest of the town. Yep, just across the road from the motorhome. They had a great night and laughed and chatted until dawn. The road where we were parked was one way up and the other side down, and on the other side of us were lots of film crew vans. At six o’clock they were all up and ready for the day. They sounded a very cheery bunch, given to much laughing and joking even at that desperate hour of the morning! I think that Gary and I got about three hours sleep, but in such happy company.

The following morning, just before eight I remembered to go and feed the parking meter and thought I would go and buy some rolls for breakfast. After the revellery of the night, I thought that the place would be empty. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The place was heaving with people, I have no idea when people sleep. The bar did lovely rolls, but even nicer looking croissants, so I got those instead.

We looked around the town and it is lovely. It is full of quaint streets with interesting small shops. The parish church has a magnificent façade and is in the middle of the main square of the town.

There is also a poignant war memorial in the square, the tall edifice in the picture. On the day that Italy surrendered, the allies bombed the town heavily, 300 lost their lives and the town was nearly decimated.

The evening was wet and cold as we went in search of a restaurant that sounded great, but we couldn’t find. We ended up at one in the same street and had a great meal, served by the very friendly and accommodating young owner. Spaghetti Bolognese (or spaghetti al ragu as we have come to call it!) wasn’t on the menu, but they prepared it anyway. At the end of the evening, Gary gave him a tip, that the owner thought was too much, so gave us a complimentary bottle of wine. I mean, how incredible is that??

The rain didn’t dampen the spirits of the local youth and we got no more sleep that the night before, but at least they were all cheerful and there was not a hint of trouble.

After driving for ten hours we ended back in Frascati!

Anyway, a real treat was just around the corner. Tricia and Jamie were coming out to see us in Rome, and Tricia had treated us to a night in their hotel, which just happened to be a five star hotel right in the centre of Rome. It was fabulous. It was more of a suite than a room. There was an internal lobby, and on the right was our huge room and magnificent bathroom an don the left was the boys’ even bigger room and even bigger bathroom. They got into the bath without prompting and used more bubbles and toiletries than I think they had used in the whole of their lives before!

At five o’clock, two housemaids arrived, for the sole purpose of turning back our sheets, we were now obviously too grand to consider doing such menial tasks ourselves. How the other half lives!!

After a brilliant evening catching up with all the gossip, we went to bed and, if only I hadn’t had any Bailey’s, I am sure would have slept like logs…

I have to confess to feeling rather jaded during the following morning’s sightseeing. You would have thought I would have learnt by now, that the moment I think a Baileys is a good idea, I should go to bed!

The castle like building is Hadrian’s mausoleum, I guess he wanted to be remembered and thought that a wall between England and Scotland was just not significant enough!

The other shot is of the shops built into the hillside in Ancient Rome.

20th November 2005

Week 25

The week didn’t start well. The camera was stolen on the Rome metro. It was round my neck, in front of me, but the train was very crowded and Rory was holding one hand and I was holding on to the rail with the other. A classic theft situation. With hindsight, I even knew who it was who had stolen it. But, at the vital time, I was not paying enough attention. I could have kicked myself as I am normally extremely careful, but the one time I wasn’t, I got caught.

What added insult to injury was when we eventually found the police station to report it, we went back on to the metro. Again, the train was packed and again I was holding Rory’s hand to make sure he didn’t get parted from me, when a lady tapped me on the shoulder to say to be careful as a man had undone the zip on my backpack and had his hand inside it! Thank goodness she spotted it and was kind enough to tell me. I had had the bag in my hand at knee level until I moved to get on the train, all the opportunity he needed, of course. I glared at him, but he just shrugged. Imagine the embarrassment of having to go back to the police station, again, to report that, this time, my purse had been pinched.

To make the day complete, we didn’t get to see the Sistine Chapel either, it was shut (again). We must be the only people who go to Rome twice in a fortnight and fail to see one of it’s most famous works. Better luck next time, I guess.

Life in the motorhome does have a routine (mostly!) and the day starts off with breakfast and then schoolwork. So, just to prove the point, I thought that I would include a photo of the boys actually doing some written work.

From Rome, we made our way south to Pompei, site of the Roman town ruined/immortalised by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. The campsite we stayed at was just across the road from “old” Pompeii and, to be perfectly honest, I do not know how people live there with the awful spectre of what could all too easily be their fate staring at them, day in day out. I scarcely slept the week we were there and I was not alone. There was a very noisy train line just at the back of the campsite and when a train roared unexpectedly past, more than one person paled!

The boys absolutely loved it there. There was plenty to explore and it is huge (66 hectares of which 45 have been excavated). Josh and I ended up going three times, we liked it so much! So there will be more pictures next week as well.

The first photo shows Josh in the Forum, which is massive. From the remaining structures you can easily imagine the hubbub of life that would have gathered there for business, worship and a gossip. It is so big, it took half an hour to walk from the entrance to the amphitheatre, although I must admit we did have a few stops on the way.

The Romans did not have a very good sewage system at the time, but all the big houses had direct access to the street and the waste just flowed straight out into it. Crossing the road could be rather hazardous, so at strategic points, large stepping stones were placed across the road, so the pedestrians could cross. There was space at the side for chariot wheels, so that the traffic was not unduly impeded. The ridges made by the chariot wheels can still easily be seen. There is a photo of Josh standing on one of the stones.

The following day we went to Herculaneum, which was almost deserted, just how we like it. We had the services of a guide, Ettore, who seemed to know just about everything about the site. Herculaneum is buried much deeper than Pompei and is even better preserved. Even wooden doors are intact, albeit carbonised. The windows still have the original iron grilles. I have put in a photo of one, taken with Rory’s camera. There had been an earlier earthquake which had destroyed much of the town, so the AD 79 eruption destroyed much of the reconstruction work. This can clearly be seen, by the different type of brickwork. The earlier brickwork was rather haphazard, but the reconstruction work showed bricks made of stone (if you follow me) in a regular pattern. This too can be seen in the photo and helps to date the building.

The eruption caused so much volcanic material to land on Herculaneum that the sea ended up half a kilometre away, whereas it had been right at the edge of the town. The second photo shows the housing for the boats (at the bottom of the picture) in which about 300 people tried in vain to seek shelter. There bodies were found there. Apparently the heat from the eruption was so great that their brains basically evaporated immediately, so they were saved the lingering suffocation from ash that was the fate of those in Pompei.

Also, in the same photo, you may be able to see new Erculano perched on top of the Roman city. In fact, very recent research has indicated that an even older city may lie under old Herculaneum.

The weather was absolutely atrocious whilst we were in Pompei and Herculaneum and to make matters worse, the garage of the motorhome was flooded. It turned out to be a leak in a hose drain valve from the boiler. It must cost at least £5 and caused mayhem. Everything in the garage and in the underfloor was soaked. Because Rory is the smallest, it was his job to burrow into the depths and fish out all the stuff that was stored there. He did a great job, as you can see