Sunday 5 October 2014


Just over an hour's drive along the Ligurian coast towards Genoa from the rugged and remote Cinque Terre gets you to the heart of the Italian Riviera.

Driving through beautiful Rapallo to Portofino, the views of intense blue-green sea are still spectacular, but peeling tumble-down village houses are traded for elegant mansions and fishing boats for expensive yachts.

Portofino, on a rocky promontory overlooking a protected cove, is a holiday home for some of Italy's elite and a favourite spot to park luxury yachts. 

But its basic appearance has apparently changed very little over the last half century, probably due to the intervention of powerful people who like to keep it exclusive and discreet.

The harbour is lined with heavily flowered, terraced, shuttered apartments, discreetly tucked-in designer-brand shops and chic restaurants, all with views to the ongoing entertainment of this busy little port. 

Topping the hillside that overlooks Portofino is the legendary Hotel Splendido (just visible top left in the pic below), where film stars and politicians have stayed since the days of Churchill, Bogart and Bacall.

We walked all the way up a winding footpath from the harbour to reach it, rewarded with sights like this on the way.

to have a cold prosecco on the garden terrace of the Splendido, and reflect on how the very rich live.

Portofino, September 2014

Thursday 2 October 2014

Cinque Terre

Five ancient fishing villages tucked into the base of mountainous cliffs on the Ligurian coast: Monterosso, Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola.

Terraces carved into the sides of mountains have been cultivated for centuries with grapes and olives, and until not so long ago the villages were connected only by mule tracks. 

Access is still difficult today. 
From inland you can drive down to certain villages via a hectically winding road, in places so narrow that only one car can pass, through miles of protected national park ...

And to travel between the cinque terre you can walk for hours along a cliff path that is in places not for the faint-hearted ...

or travel by boat from one village to the next ...

or, more practically but less scenically, by a train that links the villages.

From Monterosso, the oldest village, with a history going back to 643 AD, the views across a calm Ligurian sea at sunset are spectacular (from higher up you should be able to see right across to Corsica on a clear day) ...

and down the coastline from Monterosso's beaches the inlets sheltering the other terre are just visible.

My favourite was the smaller Vernazza. Having missed the ferry (below right), we whizzed, bumped and flew into Vernazza's little harbour in a little dinghy care of enterprising  sailor Angelo.

for a drink and aperitivos in the sun next to the stone wall separating village from harbour.

It was hard to imagine in this peaceful setting the devastation caused by floods in 2011 when a landslide of mud tore down the vertical cliffs behind Vernazza and Monterosso, almost destroying both villages.

From the central piazza on the sea-front, the village rises up along steep alleyways, and some of the homes seem to grow out of the cliff face

The church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia and the small Belforte castle, built to protect the village from pirates, look over Vernazza.

Liguria, Italy, September 2014

Sunday 28 September 2014

Montefalco snapshots

Montefalco was a wonderful Umbrian discovery - a quiet, warm, unspoilt medieval hilltop town, centre of the Sagrantino wine-producing area.

Steep narrow roads lead upwards like radials to the central Piazza del Comune at the very top of the town, where on Sunday it was market day.

Tables were laid for dinner on the piazza  (black truffles with pasta, crispy vegetable lasagne, ricotta & honey, all locally produced, and Sagrantino wine) - with blankets ready to take the edge off the chill of a September night.

Montefalco, Perugia, September 2014

Sunday 21 September 2014

Monti Sibillini

Much of Umbria looks very like Tuscany ... think olive groves, vineyards, fields of sunflowers and cypresses, dotted with ochre villages. 

But further east, and dropping down to the Adriatic, is another totally different Umbria, the region of the Sybilline mountains and national park.

It's a long drive winding up through mountains ... and unlike the hills of the rest of Umbria, these are proper mountains, part of the Appenines ... 

to the town of Norcia, the gateway inscribed with the name the Romans gave this ancient, pre-Roman town: Old Nursia. 

Recent history: a square dedicated to Norcians who died in WWII

Norcia is famous in Italy for its food, especially the Norcian salumi (not to be confused with salami): cured meat from pigs and wild boars. (Not a huge carnivore, I did buy some good local wine, bread and olive oil here).

In the central Piazza San Benedetto stands St Benedict, below, gesturing towards the basilica that was built over the spot where he was born. (I only realised here that Umbria gave rise to the two founders of western monasticism: the Benedictines and Franciscans). 

Benedictine monks look after the basilica and are very much in evidence here, but rather austere looking compared to the jollier Franciscans of Assisi (I didn't dare snap a picture of any of them).

I liked this simple basilica though, compared to the grander one built for St Francis. The crypt marks the place where Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica, also a saint, were born in 480. (Twin saints must be quite rare? And naturally Scholastica, like Clare of Assisi, is the lesser feted and recognised saint compared to her male counterpart).

Apparently if you're here at 7.45 pm in time for Compline you can hear the town's Benedictine monks singing Gregorian chants in this little crypt.

The real surprise comes after Norcia, if you're willing to persevere along the road through the Monti Sibillini. 

For someone like me who gets car-sick at the sight of a bend in the road, it says a lot that I thought it so totally worthwhile to drive further into these mountains. 

Hanging out the car window for air, I distracted myself from nausea by snapping the incredible views and communing with the occasional Sibillini cow - beautiful creatures they are.

We were headed for Castellucio: Italy's highest inhabited village, which overlooks the Piano Grande, a vast plain, divided like patchwork into fields of lentils in shades of green and yellow.

We had lunch in this friendly little town that has the most basic amenities and less than 200 inhabitants, but an unforgettable setting.

In spring the Piano Grande is covered in wild flowers and visitors bring a living for a few months to the town's inhabitants. In winter it's deep under snow, making the winding roads leading to Castellucio almost inaccessible. There are wolves in these mountains, and a few wild cats and bears still left roaming around.

And finally there was the road back from the Sybilline peaks down to the vineyards of the other Umbria ...

Friday 19 September 2014

Terra dei santi

Assisi is one of those picture-perfect medieval hilltop towns in the Perugia region, like so many others but with a unique claim to fame. 

St Francis/Francesco was born here, to well-off parents (his father a silk merchant) but turned his back on the good life to take a vow of poverty, roaming Umbria in a tunic of sack-cloth and preaching even to the birds according to legend. 

He was perhaps the original hippy/eco-warrior (though unwanted memories of Zeffirelli's pretty awful musical biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon did come flooding back to me).

Assisi attracts hordes of visitors and religious tourists through the summer, but is crowd-free now in September. And thanks to being a UNESCO world heritage site, the town is beautifully preserved and free of tacky tourist and souvenir trappings. 

Together with Clare of Assisi, Francis established the Franciscan monastic order and the Poor Clares. Friars and nuns are everywhere in the town today. 

I liked how these two, carrying their bottles of mineral water, still seemed to be so impressed by the views of Umbrian countryside.

Even monks and nuns enjoy a spot of window-shopping it seems, and this elderly nun was on point with a baseball cap and trainers.

The town is laid out so that one must walk the entire length of the pretty town, as all good pilgrims ought,  to reach the Basilica di San Francesco at the far end. 

Its foundation was laid in 1228, the day after Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint, and Francis was laid to rest here in a tomb well hidden beneath the lower Basilica, to protect it from invaders, surrounded by Giotto frescoes.

Assisi, September 2014

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