Monday, August 31, 2009

Siena and our new villa

Saturday was moving day for us and so we packed up at Villa Rosa in San Cassiano and headed south. On the drive down we stopped for lunch in Siena, it was really hot and we didn't stay for long but what we saw of Siena was great. We had lunch in Il Campo (the central square) where they hold a horse race every year - for those of you who have seen James Bond's 'Quantum of Solace' will remember the opening scenes where Bond is running through the square as a horse race is taking place, well that's Il Campo! We sat in an outdoor restaurant overlooking the square trying to imagine the chaos, excitement and noise of the Palio, when the 10 horses race three laps of Il Campo in a race which lasts just 90 seconds.
Rebecca's yummy lunch
We had a yummy lunch - Rebecca enjoyed bruschetta with tomato and mozzarella, Josh had an omelette and cheese in a foccaccia bread sandwich, Lionel had a salami sandwich and I had a ham sandwich. We had the nicest bread today that we have had since we got to Italy - on the whole it has been very dry bread and certainly not the tasty bread we had been used to in France.
Our new villa 'Sommavilla' is on the Tuscan/Umbria border not far from Lake Trasimeno. It is lovely and the seven of us (we are still with Jane & Hannah and Malcolm) are enjoying the space, the only downside of this villa is the flies...they are everywhere and are very annoying! The day we arrived we weren't too sure where we were going as we wound 2km up on steep, narrow gravel road, but once we got here we love it. We are on a working organic farm of 70hectares where the farmer runs 90 sheep. The sheep are kept inside over night and are let out in the morning to various areas of the farm - some of the sheep have bells around their necks so that the farmer knows where they are! It is covered with a lot of trees and out the front of our villa there are lots of olive and fig trees. One of the important aspects of the villa for the kids is the pool - it is 14m x 7m and has glorious views over the surrounding countryside.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A night at the opera

My birthday treat was a night in Verona with Malcolm, Jane & Hannah to go to the opera "Carmen". I hear some of you thinking "A night at the opera doesn't sound like much of a treat..." and to be honest it more the experience than the opera that I was going for. It was part of the Verona Summer Festival and the opera is held in the open air, Roman amphitheatre and it was amazing sitting in the theatre which was built in 49BC and had been the scene of many a nights entertainment.
We were sitting in the 'cheap seats' which consisted of stone steps which were un-numbered and so we had to get there early to get a good spot. We took along cushions to seat on which was very neccessary as sitting on stone steps for over 4 hours would not have been comfortable! Yes, 4 hours - the performance started at 9pm and finished at 1am.
I have to say I really enjoyed the performance which was the story of love, jealousy and death...It was performed without the use of microphones and speakers and considering we were seated about 150m away from the stage we could still hear reasonably well - those Romans sure knew how to build amphitheatres. The stage area was huge and at times there were horses, mules and about 250 people all on stage together.
During the breaks between acts there was also plenty of entertainment in the crowd with the vendors selling drinks (calling out 'Coca, Fanta, Biera, Vino'), programmes, CDs and cushions to rent. We also had our own food and drink supplies which we nibbled on as the evening passed by.
Our night at the opera was very enjoyable and if you are in Verona during August it is something not to be missed!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

Saturday 22 August

45 years old....Wow!
What a great place to be celebrating my birthday...Tuscany, Italy.

We headed into Pistoia to visit the local markets this morning - the whole piazza was filled with stalls and the stalls also spread out into the side streets. Josh was delighted to find camo cargo shorts and a belt which he has been wanting (now he can put his Swiss army knife onto his belt). Rebecca was gutted because all her money disappeared in Florence when she bought her Converse high-tops, however she ended up with new underware and pyjamas.

For dinner tonight we went up to the local bar/restaurant in San Cassiano where we tortelli and pizza. The kids surprised me with birthday cake and gelato when we got back to the villa.

A great day with family and friends!

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Josh pushes the tower over

Thursday 20 August

Today we joined the crowds in Pisa to see, climb, and of course take our photo holding up the leaning tower. It was really hot - 42degrees at 11am and so when we could we found little bits of shade to hide in, and at the end of the day when the sprinklers came on, the kids didn't mind getting just a little bit wet!
Building work for the tower stated in 1173AD but it stopped at the third stage as the building was already starting to collapse! A century later three more stages were added deliberately constructed to tilt in the opposite direction - and so the tower has not only a lean, but a kink! In 1989 the tower was closed as it was dangerously close to collapsing, and for the next 12 years engineers worked to stabilise it. In 2001 the tower reopened to the public but reconstruction work still continues.
It was amazing walking up the spiral stairs to the top of the tower because you really did feel the lean - going one way you definately leaned in towards the wall and the other side away from it. It was incredible looking at the stone steps as we walked up because they were so worn away by the many people who had climbed up and down the tower over the centuries.
Rebecca holds the tower up

Villa Rosa, San Cassiano

Dinner on the balcony
'Villa Rosa'
We are halfway through our 2 week stay in the wonderful little mountain village of San Cassiano in Tuscany - about an hour from Lucca.
We wondered where we were going to the first day that we came here as it seemed such a long drive up the narrow, winding mountain road but we are now enjoying this lovely little village. We are getting used to the road now as we go out on our various excursions, but I have to say that I didn't enjoy coming home in the dark the other night - the corners just kept coming and it was hard to know which way they were going to turn and how sharply - but we got home safely!
We are enjoying being out of the tents and into a house and beds again and the villa is very comfortable - we have a balcony which we sit out on and gaze out over the mountains and along the valley. I love seeing the little villages clinging to the sides of the mountains and they all have their local churches so we hear the church bells ringing all around the valley. Our local 12th century church has a bell which chimes hourly and then one ring on the half hour, so it is quite nice when you don't have a clock handy you can just wait for the church bells to ring to know the time! We have been wandering up to the local shop for bread in the mornings and to the local bar/restaurant for pizza some nights. Our local shop (as with most shops in Italy) is closed from 1-4pm and all day Sunday. It took a while for us to get used to this, but when we are home on 'rest' days it is quite nice to know that everyone else is indoors having a siesta. On the days when we are out and about we notice that it is generally only the crazy tourists who are walking around in the midday sun!
We are also enjoying the pool which we have at the villa and it is great to be able to have a cool down in the late afternoon.
It is great to be here with our Invercargill swimming friends - Jane & Hannah and Malcolm - Rebecca is really enjoying this time with Hannah and she is not looking forward to the time when we will go our separate ways, but what great holiday memories they will have!
We move from here on Saturday 29th and go to another villa down near Cortona (the southern part of Tuscany).

Friday, August 21, 2009


Looking out over Florence at the end of the day
21 August

We spent a long day in Florence today and it is now ending with me sitting out on the balcony of the villa catching up on some writing. It is a very pleasant 28 degrees at the moment (10.30pm) and I am enjoying the peacefulness of the village and the clear, starry night sky.

It was great wandering around Florence today and we found the weather to be not as hot as our day in Pisa (I will catch you up with that sometime soon) - it was only about 38 degrees! We split up and did several different things today - Jane & Malcolm took Hannah and Rebecca to the Academia to see the original marble statue of the 4m tall 'David'. Josh didn't think he needed to go and see a naked man and so Lionel & I took him to the Science Museum to see some of the ancient science instruments, including some of Galileo's instruments.

We all met up at lunch time for pizza (and of course gelato...)

Lionel & Josh then headed off to some gardens to find some shade and a cool place to wait out the afternoon, while Jane & I took the girls shopping! We visited the Armani shop and walked past Louis Voitton, Prada, Guchi, and many other fashion stores - fortunately many of them were closed for the siesta period and so it was only window shopping. We found ourselves in a shoe shop where Rebecca & Hannah both purchased a pair of Converse shoes - Rebecca's are black & white high-tops.

We wandered through the market, I bought a scarf but we weren't tempted by too much and then we walked through Ponte Vecchio which is the area of the gold and silver sellers (no, Lionel didn't buy me anything for my birthday!)

As the afternoon got hotter and the bodies got more tired we stopped for another gelato before the next lot of walking.

The streets of Florence are full of history with the narrow alleyways, old stone buildings and cobble stone streets. There are a multitude of piazzas, churches, museums and statues. There are gold shops, silver shops, leather shops and of course a variety of tourist stalls.

We were amazed to see how quickly the people illegally selling on the side of the street could gather up their wares when there was any sign of the police, and we even saw some police on motorbikes run over one man's pictures when he was too slow moving on.

Our day ended with dinner in a local restaurant and then driving up to Palazzo Micelangelo to take lots of photos overlooking the city - yes, I will get some photos uploaded soon and I will update the days I have missed out.

We are loving Italy (except for the heat) and have definately decided that none of us will starve while in, gelato, pasta, gelato, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and of the gelato!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

We have internet access!

We have an internet stick thingy and so have our own internet connection while in Italy for the next 3 weeks so I will get onto updating the blog and adding some photos....that is when I am not in the pool, drinking the local vino, or eating the local pizza, pasta, tomatoes etc!!!

Saturday, August 15, 2009


The family, with the Eiger in the background
Thursday 13 August –Friday 14 August
It was just amazing to see Jane & Hannah and unbelievable that we are here in Switzerland together! Rebecca & Hannah have hardly stopped talking since we arrived two days ago.
On Thursday we caught the cable car from Lauterbrunnen up to Grutschalp and then walked to Murren. The views were just staggering and we stopped and looked across the valley to the Eiger and the Jungfrau mountains. It was spectacular walking along the mountain paths, through the forests, beside the fields, past streams, with mountains towering over us and cable cars going across above us.
We stopped at a small stream at one stage and refilled our water bottles with ice cold water straight off the mountains.
After a picnic lunch we walked along to Blumental where we got the cable car down to Gimmelwald. The cable car trips have been very spectacular and they climb and descend very steep mountains – makes the gondola at Queenstown feel like a very small hill!
We walked back to Lauterbrunnen on a track which followed alongside a glacial river. At one stage we crossed over a stream which we had a paddle in – very refreshing on hot, tired feet!
We are staying in a cabin here and so it was very nice to roll into bed tonight and rest our weary bodies.
Rebecca & Hannah up the Jungfrau Josh 'bum boarding'
On Friday we went up the Jungfrau. This is a trip which I regret missing 24 years ago when I was a young thing touring Europe and it was great to be able to do it this time around. The Jungfraujoch is 11,333ft (3454m) and so when we were up there we were nearly at the height of Mt Cook!
It took nearly 2 hours in two different trains to get up to the top and the views were spectacular down the glacier and across the other mountains, including the Eiger. Queenstown has spectacular scenery but this makes Queenstown look small.
Hey it's Becca here now, I'm to tell you about when Josh, Hannah and I went 'bum-boarding'! It was one of the free activities up the mountain, where you slide down a track on the top of the glacier whilst sitting on small plastic disks. After a few people wiped out on the track it got a bit bumpy, so when Hannah and I went down after this man we went over a large lump of snow, the landing was EXTREMELY painful - we honestly thouight we'd broken our tailbones!! So yeh anyway we had a great time, even if it did result in a few days of discomfort!

Car Trouble...

Monday 9 August – Wednesday 11 August

We have learnt some French words which we did not wish to know...’depannage’ means ‘towing’ and ‘le garage’ is ‘the garage’.
Yes, we have had car trouble...
We had a beautiful drive out of the Languedoc region through some mountainous country, wooded areas and beautiful little villages. It was quite steep in places and we got some amazing views.
On Monday we drove up through Millau, where we had lunch. Lionel & Josh had seen the Millau Viaduct on a ‘Top Gear’ programme and we thought that since we were in the area we would pay a visit. It is an amazing feat of engineering with the viaduct spanning a huge gorge.
Our trials started about 4pm when the car lost power on a hill. We called in at the next garage and the mechanic said to head to the big Peugeot garage in Le Puy (about an hour & a half away). We didn’t make it that far and at about 4.40 I had to call the emergency number to get a tow truck out. My French really is not that good – especially over the telephone and about an hour and a half later the gendarmerie arrived saying that my directions were not good and the tow truck could not find us...he called the tow truck and it soon arrived!
It was about 7pm by the time we got to the garage and so they arranged a hotel room for us, which was very kind of them and we enjoyed a night in a real bed with sheets!
The next morning we thought the car was fixed and ready to go...but NO. So we spent Tuesday night camping on the Central Massif at a lovely little family campsite. Lunch time Wednesday we finally got away from Landos! By this time we had made contact with Jane & Hannah (friends from Invercargill) and they were going to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. So we decided to meet up with them there. We were very excited at the thought of seeing them and planned on being there at about 6pm.
OH NO....About 40 minutes after leaving the garage the same thing happened – the car just lost all power! I phoned the garage we had been at (unfortunately the owner spoke no English) and I thought he said he would come and get us....after an hour or so he still hadn’t arrived a lovely French road worker stopped to help us and called a tow truck. The garage man had said for us to come back to him... We ended up at a different garage where the problem got fixed. A part which filters the air through the turbo (I think) had worn out with the heat and all the hills and so wasn’t letting air through causing the engine to cut out. Not a problem we would have had in England as it doesn’t get hot enough and there isn’t enough hills!
We were finally on our way at 4.30pm and arrived in Lauterbrunnen at 10pm.
It is so good to see Jane & Hannah and we have 3 nights in Switzerland before heading down into Italy.

Albine, Languedoc Region

Wednesday 5 August – Monday 9 August
We arrived at a lovely country side campsite in the mountains of the Languedoc at around lunch time.
It was really hot so we got the tents out to dry off and then it was straight into the pool to cool down. We spent a lot of time in the pool over the five days at this site – especially the first two days when the temperature got up to 38 degrees.
This was a very relaxing time and we spent lots of time reading, swimming, playing table tennis and playing badminton.
On Saturday we went into Mazamet for the local marche (farmers market) and we bought some lovely fresh fruit, jambon (ham) and fromage (cheese).
We are still loving the bread deliveries at the camp site in the mornings and baguettes, boules and pain au choclat are still the favourites. [Bread...favorite?? not so much! Over that like a week ago! Added by Rebecca] The kids would also say that they are over pasta...but I have enjoyed our pasta meals – especially when I add mushrooms, tomato, courgette and ham! We did enjoy going out to a local restaurant though where we had a steak and chips!
The last couple of days at Albine were quite drizzly and so not so pleasant, especially since we only have the small tents, and it did make packing up a bit of a trial...however we had greater trials to come!
We left Albine on Monday with the plan of heading to St Etienne and having a night in a hotel before heading through the Mt Blanc tunnel...that was not to be!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Carcasonne, South of France

Tuesday 4 August –
We left our campsite at La Chalard by 10.30am and decided we would take the toll road down to Carcasonne to make it an easier drive and only about 4 hours which would give us plenty of time to find a campsite and get set up.
Oh the best laid plans...we got stuck in traffic on the A61 because of an accident and for 2 hours we hardly moved, then for the next hour traffic was on a detour and so was much slower than the 130 km/h that we were expecting. We eventually made it to Carcasonne after 6pm and pulled up to a campsite – it was full. They were directing people to another site not far away so we went there and they were full too, but were putting people in a field for the night (to be vacated by 8.30am) – at least it is somewhere to sleep. By now it was after 7pm, still over 30 degrees and everyone was tired...we got the tents set up then headed up to the camp bar/restaurant for a cold drink and a banana split which helped revive everyone a bit!
We didn’t have our best night’s sleep – the traffic seemed to race up and down the road outside and there was a regular train that went past, it had been so hot when we went to bed that I just used sheets and left my sleeping bag in the car so I woke at 4am cold...we were out of that campsite by 8am to find the village boulangerie for our baguette and pain au choclat
Before leaving Carcasonne we went up to explore the old walled town and had fun walking around the ramparts and pretending to survey our kingdom. We were there before all the touristy shops were open (which we didn’t mind) and before the chateau was open (which we didn’t mind) and before the crowds of people arrived (which we really didn’t mind). Carcasonne may be a lovely place but for us it was too hot and too busy so we moved on.
We drove north for about an hour and a half and found a campsite at the village of Albine, not too far from the large town of Mazamet...more about that next.

Limousin Region

31 July – 3 August
Internet access is not always available when I want it and so I will write up blog posts in Word and then add them as I am able to.
We have had a wonderful 4 nights in the Limousin region – after the flat, brown landscape of Northern France it was great to get into the hilly green country of this region. There are still many maize fields but also lots of trees and the gorgeous red Limousin cattle.
We have been staying at a great campsite near the small village of La Chalard. It is run by an English couple who have been here for 20 years and so it is nice to be able to converse in English and know that our communication is being understood correctly! There is also a pool which we have been enjoying as two of the days were around 33 degrees. One thing which we love about camping in France is the fresh bread which is delivered in the morning for breakfast, we also usually have a treat of pain au choclat! The baguettes are lovely and crusty on the outside but soft on the inside and we have just discovered a cereal loaf which is quite grainy.
Lionel & I went to the nearby village of Jumillihac for the Sunday morning marche (farmers market). It was held in a spectacular spot – the town square in front of a huge chateau. There were a variety of stalls and we bought some of the lovely fresh vegetable – tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and mushrooms. We looked at the chutney and jam but on our limited budget we decided it was a luxury we could pass by (we went to Intermarche and bought cheap supermarket jam). Lionel did some wine tasting and we bought a bottle of red which we shared with some campsite friends, with some crackers and cheese, later in the evening.
We have enjoyed the friendliness of this campsite and have spent some time with an English couple whose two young girls followed Rebecca around. Rebecca & Josh also played in the pool with a French family – they had very limited English and we had very limited French but swimming races and diving for the ring are universal games!
We packed up from here on Tuesday for a 4 hour drive south to Carcasonne....but that’s a story for next time!