With the riviera throw in for good measure.
24.08.2012 - 04.09.2012
Dave: By now completely in love with Italy, and proud of myself for surviving Rome without scratching our car, our trip returned north to Tuscany. This time around we had pre-booked places to stay that turned out to be absolute gems.
First stop was a couple of nights at a B&B in Civitella Maratimma - a medieval village that sits, like many other Tuscan villages, on the top of a hill within the original castle walls. It was pretty much what you would expect to see on Tuscany post cards and was the opposite to a bustling metropolis. Civitella has a population of about 350 people of which we probably spotted only a dozen or so during our stay. Quiet is the key word here. So we just relaxed, strolled through the village, popped up to Siena (see below), and enjoyed sensational food cooked by Alessandro, the owner of the B&B/restaurant. In Bodhi's words "the most awesome spaghetti ever in the world."
Siena - if Civitella Maratimma was the thing of postcards, then Siena was like stepping back in time (albeit we hadn't been to Volterra yet). Just a short drive away from Civitella, we spent the afternoon strolling through the streets of this sensational medieval city, one of the largest Tuscan towns, before returning for more fun squeezing the car through Civitella's cobblestone streets (I'm embracing my Italian heritage and driving like the locals). Oh, and did I mention Alessandro's food?
Volterra - now we really were stepping back in time. With a strong regional identity, many of the villages and towns throughout Italy hold annual fairs and it just so happened that Volterra's was on the weekend that we would be heading past, well with a bit of a detour we would be - so we did. Actually it wasn't far out of the way as the crow flies but eventually the slow, twisting Tuscany roads did become a bit wearing. That aside it was worth the drive! The Volterra 1348 festival saw the entire city's population dress up as if it was, yep, the year 1348! Various stalls and displays showed products, tools and techniques of that time along with lots of food (imagine whole pig) and vino. On the village green they shot arrows and spears at each other, had sword and axe fights, and flung big black balls with a mind bogglingly dangerous catapult. All in all a sensational afternoon - next stop Benabbio.
Benabbio - well, what to say about Benabbio? Not a lot really - that's kind of the point. This is just a little hilltop Tuscan village that you reach via 7km of twisting, climbing roads up the mountain - reminded me a bit of riding through the Himalayas but with different trees. When we reached the village for the first time it was a tad nerve-wracking squeezing the car between buildings which appeared to be exactly one car width apart. I'm certain it was those italian genes kicking in once again as I soon got into the 'zone' where nothing could stop me - a whole lot of fun!
Apart from a few walks around the village, a couple of trips to the supermercato down the hill in Bagni de Lucca, and a walk up to the original Benabbio castle site where excavations were on the go, we pretty much spent the entire six days reading, meditating and playing board games with Bodhi. Our neighbours were the owners - San Francisco natives from Haight-Ashbury who moved with their Swiss mountain dog and parrot two years earlier, providing a fair amount of inspiration to follow your dreams. Pure relaxation in a beautiful part of the world. Leaving Benabbio, and Tuscany, it was now time to head towards France - and the Italian Riviera beckoned along the way...
Rapallo - our first stop along the Riviera. We found a nice little hotel to stay at, probably over priced but with warm hospitality, and just hung out on the esplanade eating pizza, sipping a tasty beverage or four, and calling friends. Toni even found a power point next to our table which we sneakily plugged into to keep the phone charged. Just another beautiful place amongst beautiful friendly people. For what it's worth (Warning: sweeping generalisations to follow...), the Italian people have been absolutely wonderful, the service impeccable, and even on the roads no-one seems overly fussed or stressed. We will return!
Driving to Nice we were obliged by traveller's etiquette to visit Monaco. Importantly we even managed to do this and still leave Monte Carlo with money in our account - albeit we only stopped for an American burger Father's day lunch and a wander around the harbor and old town. Probably one of the great joys of our trip has been visiting places and then, now having a context, getting on Wikipedia to learn a whole lot of history that we may otherwise never have got around to. The history of Monaco is certainly interesting and visiting this 'backyard of the rich' was certainly worthwhile. The only slight challenge was that getting out of Monaco requires one to navigate through a series of tunnels, with underground corners and roundabouts, and SatNav doesn't work underground. After several loops and mild frustration we were eventually on our way to Nice.
Nice was nice. Okay, I had to say that. Nice was actually great. I wasn't completely sold before we went, particularly with some negative comments on Trip Advisor, but was pleasantly surprised once we were there. Even the onset of rain didn't dampen the joy of wandering the antiques market, checking out the beach and strolling through the old city. On the way home from dinner we stopped to watch a breakdance crew busking in the town square - skilled, funny and well rehearsed. Bodhi was mesmorised - they were a really talented group of guys. There's not a lot of 'must sees' in Nice but I can see why the Europeans would head down there for a holiday.