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

Saturday, 13 September 2014


From Lake Como the route south bypasses Milano on the network of motorways running through northern Italy's industrial heartland. Past Parma, Modena and just beyond Bologna, almost on the east coast, we turned west into the centre of Italy - now hilly and green with ochre villages - heading for Perugia and beyond.

By mid afternoon there was a view of a slice of Umbrian hillside from a bedroom window in a house surrounded by olive groves.

The sunflowers are drooping and finished by now, in mid-September

but the hillsides and vineyards are deep green from Italy's rainy summer that has done wine production no good.

Vineyards at Tenuta Castelbuono winery, producers of Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino wines

Avenue of cypresses at the Fattoria Colsanto in the Montefalco DOC

And the sun's shining in the little walled Roman town of Bevagna in Umbria's wine producing region

Simple good food at a taverna in Bevagna: panzanella, truffle omelette, gnocchi with Sagrantino wine sauce.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Road trip

When the journey is at least as much the point as the destination, when you can see three countries in one day, isn't a road trip just the best?

France: misty dawn at 6.30 am on the road from Épernay, leaving the capitale du champagne's vineyards behind and heading north-east into Alsace-Lorraine.

Via Nancy and Metz, the road climbs into the mountains of the Vosges, before we turn south before Strasbourg, through historically German territory, hugging the German border.

Crossing the border at Basel, we're in Switzerland and suddenly it's a different territory altogether: neat A-framed houses and the cleanest cows you'll ever see, dotted against the greenest meadows. They seem to polish the grass here and line up the trees in tidy rows. Ordnung muss sein.

Spotless, efficient motorways bisect picture postcard scenes of mountains and lakes.

No winding detours here - wide, well-lit tunnels cut straight under the mountains. (A road tax demanded at the Swiss border ensures you pay for the privilege of using, and maintaining, these beautiful roads). 
The Gotthard tunnel is 17 kms long, making it the third longest in the world. Boring directly through the Gotthard mountain, it gets you from central Switzerland to within a whisker of Milan in 15 minutes.
And before you know it, you're in Italy ...

... and marvelling again at how striking the difference can be from the moment of crossing a border - from the gently chaotic infrastructure to the faded romantic houses clustered haphazardly on winding roads.

Late afternoon there's a haze on Lake Como and the day's driving is over.

Time for a campari maybe, with a view over the lake 

Resident kitten, lake views and Italian design at Villa Nina B&B, Carate Urio, Lago di Como

Ristorante La Baia, Moltrasio, Lago di Como

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Antwerp affinity

Brussels is grand, but in a contest I'd pick Antwerp in a heartbeat.

Antwerp feels full of life and interest and so very gezellig.

It's a design and fashion mecca (think Martin Margiela, Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester ...)

There's art and culture, old and new 

The Rubenshuis above and below, where Rubens lived and painted for most of his life

Even the Hare Krishnas were there on a Saturday morning, bringing vivid reds to the Groenplaats.

Like every other Belgian city there's a crazily high density of (good) restaurants 
Belgians getting typically serious about their food over lunch at Bourla, in Graanmarkt

... and if it isn't a restaurateur it's a chocolatier: masters of the dark art Marcolini, Wittamer, Neuhaus lead the way in chocolate perfection and in vying with one another with sculpted creations.

Just ahead of the football world cup, the chocolatiers were indulging in soccer themes - my favourite a white chocolate rendition of Rio's Christ the redeemer ...

Works in progress at The Chocolate Line, Paleis op de Meir, Antwerp

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

In the ville de Bruxelles

Heart and capital of European government, Brussels has the feel of a serious city, full of weighty institutions, politicians and foreign diplomats. 

Round and about the Grand Place, the Beaux Arts and Galeries Royales

Children playing on the almost deserted square in front of the Brussels opera house, La Monnaie/De Munt, a few hours before it filled up with opera-goers for a startling production of Orphée et Eurydice (see here), based on a real-life case of a young Belgian woman with locked-in syndrome.

Peering up at the grand vaulted glass ceiling of the colonnaded 19th century Galeries Royales 

... a perfect place for a pre-opera drink.

And from the sublime to ... Europe's oddest tourist attraction? the jolly little Manneken Pis, unadorned by outfits on this day but still drawing the crowds. 

Brussels, June 2014

Sunday, 3 August 2014

On a sunny Sunday in Cascais

this was the view from the terrace of the Albatroz hotel over the Atlantic

On a warm, still day before the start of the busy summer season, the beach was almost empty except for some carefree children running, shrieking, from the icy waves.

This beach - just a few miles along the coast from my home and school - was one of many I played on at their age and older.

Amo-te - ? was all I could make out at a distance of this boy's writing in his sand-heart. Praias de Lisboa? a sentiment after my own heart.

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