Hallo Italy!

Five hours on a train over the Bavarian Alps, across a thin but very precipitous sliver of Austria, and through the valleys and steep terraces of craggy northern Italy brought me to Bolzano. Or Bozen. Provincial capital of the Alto Adige. Or Sudtirol. You see, borders on a map may be crossed but language is shaped by the contours of the Alps – whether you are in them or out of them, what particular valley you may be in, or which side of the lake you butter your brezel in.

So just because we are in Italy does not mean that German is gone, nein nein nein. Which makes it a bit scheiser for the English-speaking, who are relegated to third in the language stakes and, if my experience is anything to go by, frequently caught out using a mix of all three. Par example (and yes, occasionally I also fall into French as default when any foreign language is involved): “Hallo, una gelato with two scoops, straciatella und caffe latte per favore. Danke.” Surprisingly though everything is understood and luscious ice cream is forthcoming.

dol02As a result I’m not so sure whether you are going to read German or Italian place names in this blog entry. I’m tempted to try and use Italian because they are in Italy, but I am rather fond of Bozen which sounds so pleasingly like a cross between bozo and bogan. Does the name do it justice? Well, I would have said yes at first, as I trudged in searing heat through industrial areas by the river, seeking a funicular to whizz me into the hills, with busy highways and power lines and train tracks crammed into the valley. But I missed the centre at first, an old town with gracious buildings and narrow pedestrian streets, made narrower by market stalls and glass displays for expensive shoes and handbags. Veering toward the Italian, which is naturally less bogan.

dol01

Bozen has three mountain cable car and railway combos whizzing you up into the countryside, and the first I took after that uninspiring walk was up to Colle. The top was still in the tree line but (take note other self-proclaimed lookouts of this world) some smart Alec had built a large wooden tower for viewing pleasure, providing you enjoy steps. From here there were views over Bozen and other foothills leading to the more jagged teeth of the Dolomites. And at the bottom a sunny bar for a beer which was disappointingly less German than much else.

dol03

The Dolomites were my raison d’être for stopping here really, as I had been interested in visiting for a while…I think spurred on by some pictures in a travel supplement or maybe some footage of crazy climbs in the Giro d’Italia. Bozen was a good base, with its cable cars and other transport links, but the Dolomites were a little infuriating to photograph: wrong light so very glary for most of the day, then thundery clouds bubbling up in the afternoon and difficulty lingering in spots very early or very late because of transportation options. It really needs a week to get close and intimate, preferably in June. It is no wonder that the area is a popular spot for multi-day walks, hiking from refuge to pension along the ridges and plains, getting personal with the mountains.

dol04Still, I had two full days and was very keen to make the most of them and the travel card I had bought. The first day I took another cable car from Bozen, impressively up and up over vineyard terraces and pine forests to the undulating plateau of the Renon. At the top a mountain tramway trundled through the undulating hills, past villages and chalets and through forests and fields. Plenty of walking tracks offered chance to meander and get slightly lost but find your way to another path providing balcony views of the glary Dolomites. With wild meadows and the scent of pine needles, it was nothing other than pretty and nourished enough appetite for lunch in a sunny garden sampling local cheese and bacon dumplings with salad.

It’s incredible to think of these Alpine environments being caked in metres of snow and freezing through several months of the year, and thus surprising how full of life they are. I guess it’s a shorter growing season and everything bursts forth rapidly and in generosity, a perfect manifestation of making hay while the sun shines. The steep hills of the region are decked out in rows and rows of vines, occasionally interspersed with orchards. Many look too steep to harvest by machine and I’m not quite sure how people actually make it to some of the farmsteads perched on their lofty terraces. It seems the cable car is the easiest way to view this hidden world, as I head back down into Bozen.

dol05

After a refresh of ice cream and purchasing some dinner time picnic snacks, a bus took me to somewhere in the general vicinity of the Jenesian cable car. Compared to the Renon, which was spacious and flash, this one was pure old school. Which means, by late afternoon, it is a searing glass house on a wire. It has a driver, who speaks to the top on his retro phone with a pleasing old-fashioned ringing bell, and seems happy to squash us in to see if we can all make it without passing out. The relief at the top is palpable, with shade and a beer garden obviously cashing in. In the distance the Dolomites still glare and clouds bubble up high, testament to the heat and humidity of August in Italy.

I was, as I say, keen to make the most of my travel card and, given it runs into the evening, I spent the last section of the day by taking the Renon cable car once more. This was a chance to try and get some good light for pictures and, well, stop on a bench in a forest and eat my bread rolls, cheese and salami sausages. I didn’t stay right until daylight faded, as it had been a long day and I wanted to catch the last bus to my pension, rather than walk up hill for twenty minutes. I had to conserve some energy for tomorrow.

dol06

So the second day was an opportunity to get closer to the toothy peaks of the Dolomites and indulge in some wilder, Alpine walking around the Alpe di Suisi. This, apparently, is the largest upland plateau of its type in Europe, whatever that means. I presume it means the biggest expanse of undulating meadows peppered with farmhouse chalets and wooded valleys, a sea of green lapping up to the sheer cliffs of encircling mountains.  It looks and feels obviously Alpine with the characteristic and pleasing sound of cowbells a sure sign to the ears that this is genuine high country.

dol08

My travel card allowed me to take the sad bus to the town of Suisi. I say sad bus, but it was quite a happy, breezy ride up from the valley, SAD being the name of the local transportation system. This climbed about 600 metres or so from Bozen. From Suisi, a cable car ascended a further 500 metres to Compaccio, and then it was onto a good old fashioned and open to the breeze chairlift propelling me another 400 metres up. What follows from here is an easy, good-natured ramble through the meadows and down past a flower filled hostelry and rustic farmhouses to a wooded valley. Down? Down? Prices may be down, but I want to go up. Up to the Rifugio di Bolzani sitting at around 2,500 metres. Am I lost, or will I need to climb more than I hoped?

dol07The answer was the latter and I have to say it was a bit of a struggle. Once or twice I thought about turning back, the views still wide and grand. Every step up and the view opened up further, but so did the frequency of stopping, ideally in a spot of shade from the sweltering sun. A salami sausage and snatch of pretzel gave fortitude and spurred on by the reward of eating more at the top, I made it.

dol10It’s a bit strange to come up this far and find a fully functioning guest house and restaurant, looking out on the sawtooth ridges of the Dolomites. Washing hangs drying in the breeze and people are decked out with picnics at the outdoor tables. Inside, a team of young people busy themselves cooking and serving food. Curious as to how all this happens, I note a rather archaic looking single wire cable way that must bring up wheels of cheese and kegs of beer. Alas, it does not transport people back down.

dol09

dol11That, for me, requires a weary descent of almost 1,500 metres as I plan to go back to Suisi to catch the sad bus. And so it’s down the entire climb that I made, happy that gravity is on my side but my feet and ankles and legs less content with the constant jarring and braking. Some respite takes place as I turn onto a path through a cool pine forest, but this at some point has to hit the river below and, when it does, it veers down in a torment of curving hairpins. The river and forest and beautiful, but after six hours or so, Suisi cannot come soon enough.

Perhaps with a week, at a cooler time of year, I could have taken things more leisurely. There are certainly many other places the SAD network can take you – on other cable cars and post buses into Switzerland for instance. There are great rides for bikes and cultural things to do too. Now being so distant in Australia I wonder why on earth I did not go away every other weekend when I lived in London. A Ryanair flight at 2am to an airport 3 hours out or Barcelona. Or the Wizz Air jet to Krakow. Or even a week in the Dolomites. Now, with time precious, I am falling into that Australian trap of trying to cover off Europe in a few days!

dol12Still, it’s amazing that you can be out of the Dolomites and into another region within a couple of hours. En route to Milan, I stopped off in the city of Verona for six hours. Five Euros seventy for left luggage the price to pay to see another Italian city. Proper Italian, with weisbier and streusels far behind and nothing but average pizza and pasta in every piazza.

dol13

I spent most of the morning meandering the streets of Verona, centred around Piazza Baz and its arena. The arena is a bit like a poor man’s version of the Colosseum in Rome (I imagine), and far more modern. I suspect it will look quite a sight in the splendour of an evening performance of – inevitably – Romeo and Juliet, but in the day, with set construction and cranes and limited access, I found 6 Euros entry a bit of a rip-off. Nearby gelato was also expensive, but the raspberry flavour was worth every cent.

dol14Verona is definitely a city for taking turns down random alley ways and stumbling across hidden piazzas and generally making it up as you go along. You will come across tourist trappings, such as the balcony where Juliet (who is, remember, a fictional character) was wooed by a horny young Montague. A nearby archway is bedecked in messages of love; inexplicably many of which are for One Direction. Such romantic prose as ‘Take me in any direction Harry’ or ‘I give you one erection One Direction’. How about you take long walk in one direction off very short pier?

dol16Anyway, you will also pass statues of Dante and come across courtyards and church towers and those colourful terraces with window boxes and shutters in perfect harmony. Eventually you’ll likely come across the Adige River, whose level is possibly heightened by tears shed for someone in One Direction getting a girl (or boy) friend. I presume some of these waters also come down from those Dolomites; indeed perhaps the stream I crossed before that long climb eventually finds its way here.

After many days of mountain or city walking, legs and feet are starting to wear, but one final climb is worth it. Steps and steps lead up on the other side of the river to a castle and views over Verona, a city not without charm. An Italian city where they speak Italian, a chance to be anchored in one language and culture for just a while. For tomorrow brings a train through Switzerland, where Italian becomes German becomes French, all armed with pocket knives. Grazie, Danke, Merci.

dol15

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Lost

L_florence0

It must have been the third time I had come across the unassuming facade of a small church, white columns illuminated at night in a dim yellow glow and reaching up to a plain second level with modest belltower on top. It appeared at the junction of a darkened alley and small cobblestone road, wedged in among terraces of apartment blocks and surrounded by a few parked cars and more parked mopeds. It was an unspectacular scene in a city such as Florence, and clearly there were very few tourists who had ventured down this particular street. Yet somehow I had ended up here three times, seeking a way out of the tangle of alleys and streets to the solace of my hotel bed.

It had all started off so well, arriving in the city centre on an impressively fast train from Milan, just in time for lunch off the giant square of Piazza Signoria. Around the corner, my budget hotel room sat behind a huge wooden door and up five flights of stairs but it was amenable and comfortable, albeit with what is likely the world’s smallest shower. Freshly showered, I loved walking down those stairs and out of that door into a tiny alley that funnelled onto the grand piazza, with decadent statues and imposing arcades around the fortress-like towers of the Palazzo Vecchio. From here and down alongside the Uffizi Gallery, with its never-ending queues, I came out onto the River Arno, and to my right, the ramshackle arrangement of buildings that line the Ponte Vecchio drew me along.

Things seemed to worsen with the onset of a thunderstorm and though I hastily and successfully retraced my steps, the atmospherics had changed. Rather than cleansing and refreshing, the rain left a residue of water, channelling the hot summer dirt of a city into pools and leaving a gritty film across its cobblestones. The darkness of clouds and the howl of winds created a doomsday of Dantean proportions, where it seemed only a matter of time before arches would crash to the ground and the earth would open up and swallow the array of sculptures congregating in every square. And out of this darkness came a new hell, an army of revitalised mosquitoes, hungry and thirsty for blood.

It was into this post-apocalyptic environment that I returned after dark, only to find I may have been over-egging the scene, as the rain had passed, the lights were still on and people had returned to the streets in pursuit of a heavenly combination of food, music, art, and animated conversation. I was ready for a quieter night and content just to seek a bite to eat; any music, art or animated conversation would be a secondary outcome. A modest goal, but one with just enough vagueness to prove my undoing.

I don’t get lost very often. I mean proper lost, like I don’t know where the hell I am or where I am supposed to go. Typically I have this in-built radar that can orient my position, the direction in which to head, and the way to get there. Even a few minor diversions and detours generally become easily rectified. But on this night indecisiveness about what to eat and the setting in which to do it said hello to the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Florence to prove a frustrating concoction. My complacency to not take a map or read where to eat first or to just settle for the first option compounded this. And while there was an initial sense of excitement and discovery about losing yourself in the city, by the end I was footsore and sweaty and hungry and mosquito-bitten.

Now, I can hear you saying that surely there are many places to eat in Florence. I can hear you loud and clear. Indeed, if I was to head left or right, north or south, I would be guaranteed some pizza or a bowl of pasta or a juicy hunk of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The issue was finding somewhere that most closely resembled the idealised image I had in my head, the concept that best met my needs: quiet but with bustle, tucked away in some quaint little alley but not far from the main tourist drags, a place that was reasonably priced and, importantly, a spot where you wouldn’t feel too much of a loser for being there on your own while others dined on spaghetti like a couple of trampy dogs in a cartoon. Significantly, the fact that I wasn’t in a pasta or pizza mood didn’t help one bit.

The night now turns into a blur, one street looking like the next, rows of mopeds cluttering the kerbs, buildings tightly clumped next to and on top of each other. Amongst them the occasional grander building decorated with neat columns and fancy cornice work would be memorable landmarks from which to navigate, but here they are ten a penny. Each of these streets seems to flush out onto a small piazza, where five others shoot off, like the legs of some grubby Italian insect. The disorientation is palpable, only occasional guidance provided by the giant glowing beacon of the Duomo, which is never in the direction in which you thought it should logically be. The river is somewhere, and eventually I come across it, and can backtrack along its banks to my hotel room. For dinner, two hours later, some takeaway tagliatelle from the tacky restaurant five doors down.

For the rest of my stay in Florence I decided to take a map in my back pocket. It turns out you can still embrace the pleasures of ambling aimlessly around the streets while having a destination in mind (and occasionally checking a map to ensure you are on course). The glimpses of Duomo on the first night cemented my desire to explore this centrepiece further. Towering over the rest of the city it should be fairly easy to find, though the constricted density of the streets mean you can approach the square in which it sits without a sighting until the very last moment. Where a laneway takes a sudden jolt to the left or right, as if it had wholly shifted five metres in an earthquake, a glimpse of the Duomo almost magically emerges in the gap of air between window shutters and washing.

Having located the huge cathedral without incident, further steps took me on a breathtaking climb to the top of its belltower. And while my heart rate slowed and breathing recovered, I was taken away by the expansive view over the city. From this godly vantage you can understand how easy it is to lose yourself in the melange of terracotta roofs and earthy brickwork. Streets appear to disappear, with only major thoroughfares visible, radiating out from the larger piazzas in perfectly straight slices. There is a strident hum of business thrust upwards from those streets and I can see the tops of heads clustering and flowing in all directions, some of which are no doubt getting lost.

L_florence1

From this height I can also see beyond the packed cityscape that jams its way along to the north bank of the Arno. Across the other side, hills rise and buildings begin to scatter, marking a more gentrified, palatial part of town. This is where the rich people would have gathered and set down their extravagance in showy mansions and gilded villas and trigonometric gardens. Here there is the perfect opportunity to lose yourself in a different type of Florence, a manicured Florence that is perched on the doorstep of the Tuscan countryside.

Across this side of the river the behemoth of Palazzo Pitti is eclipsed by the grandiose Boboli Gardens which spread from its back door. A route into the gardens was typically not the easiest to find, an indistinct hole in a brick wall leading me into a rambling paradise of manicured lawns and fountain embellished ponds, unkempt meadows and leafy woods. The gardens are a great place in which to lose oneself, to take a breather from the manic buzz of life to the north of the Arno. In fact, you may emerge atop a hill and forget you are in Florence altogether, casting an eye south and east over rambling olive groves and cypress pine perforated by the odd beige and sienna villa. A Tuscan landscape with the pomp of a city behind it.

The ticket to Boboli Gardens also includes entry to another, smaller breathing space nearby: Bardini Gardens. I don’t think so many people make it here which, to me, makes it even better. I am not sure why fewer visitors come here. It’s certainly less grand than Boboli and if you are pushed for time I suppose you may skip the opportunity, wary of garden fatigue. Naturally it’s not very well signposted so some people may get lost on the way and give up. I almost did the same, but retraced my steps, took a different turn which did not seem logical and then found the entrance which just looked like the front door of a posh house.

Within, the gardens are less manicured, woody and leafier and dotted with an assortment of faded terracotta pots and crumbling walls. It’s more difficult to get lost, which on this trip is starting to sound like a blessing. A main path zigzags its way back down to river level, stopping off on the way at a weatherworn terrace offering some of the best views of the city. Those infamous city streets, a crammed conglomerate of buildings whose blanket of roofs is penetrated by the spires, towers and domes of all the major sights, glowing in the afternoon sun. Those streets into which you again spill and navigate with increasing mastery. No need for a map again, happily lost.

L_florence2

A to Z Europe Food & Drink Walking

Mountain Views

I love mountains! This may be because usually they offer a lookout or two and, frequently, a good, feisty walk or a spectacular trip on a masterful feat of railway engineering. Some are close to home, others far away. Green, red, white, blue; snow-capped, sun-baked, forested, bare; cut by water, ice and wind. Mountains just sit there and beg to be looked at!

Below are a few images from mountains and high points I have captured and cherished. Click on an image to open a slideshow view…

Australia Europe Galleries Photography USA & Canada