Mandria Del Dottore Toscano : Tarsia : Calabria : Italy

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano : Tarsia : Calabria : Italy

On our road trip around Italy, driving in the Calabrian south was tiring, so we needed to break the journey up from Villa San Giovanni (where you cross to & from Sicily) to Matera and so consulted our trusty oracles – a well thumbed road map and google. Tarsia seemed to be a place that was just about equi-distant, but very remote. As boutique style hotels seemed to be a bit on the sparse side, we plumped for the agriturismo option.

We found Agriturismo B&B Mandria Del Dottore Toscana through a series of internet searches – although it has to be said, finding it online is MUCH easier than finding it in reality. We got to Tarsia relatively easily, then the trail went cold. One thing we have realised is that Italian road signage, once you’re off the main roads, is pretty rubbish. Road  signs are often covered in vines/foliage, or twisted, or burned, or simply not there. After about an hour of aimless driving around, we gave up and asked for directions in a very small bar. We clearly weren’t the first to do this as a call was made and 15 minutes later, a car arrived, we followed & after many twists and turns across hilly countryside, arrived at our destination.

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano, Tarsia, Calabria

Mandria Del Dottore Toscano, Tarsia, Calabria

This was definitely a very rural location, so if you’re after a wild night of clubbing, this farmhouse won’t appeal. Set in acres of rolling hills, there is literally nothing else around you – apart from horses, olive groves and beautiful silence. We felt the need to whisper until we realised that actually no-one else was around to hear us. I think the owners clocked on that we were a little bit stressed when we arrived, and a bottle of their own wine was put out on the table in front of us, with two glasses. Very little communication as they spoke no English, and our Italian, at the time, was pretty basic – but a generous gesture is a generous gesture in whatever language.

A welcome drink. Much appreciated...

A welcome drink. Much appreciated…

The owners live on the farm, and it is a working farm. It’s rustic and rural and although not full of the most modern amenities, it’s perfect for a bit of a get-away. Most importantly, the bed was super comfortable – something that Italians do hold in high regard as we have not slept in anything other than VERY comfortable since we’ve been away. The bathroom was spotless, with a great sized shower, too. A definite plus point.

Splendid isolation, especially after the hustle & bustle of Sicily.

Splendid isolation, especially after the hustle & bustle of Sicily.

An abundance of prickly pears.

An abundance of prickly pears.

Winter preparation well under way.

Winter preparation well under way.

Autumn sunset in Calabria

Autumn sunset in Calabria.

We could have had dinner (with everything being sourced from the land we were staying on), but as we had a kitchen in the apartment we chose to cook & eat on the terrace. We’d picked up some supplies on the way – it’s worth having some staples to cook with, as if you don’t fancy what’s on the menu that night, you’re stuck. Breakfast was very simple – bread, cheese, preserves, proscuitto – but ALL locally sourced.

There are four apartments. We think we might have had the largest as it was the most expensive, and had a terrace, but it was still only 68 euros to stay the night – worth every cent for the solitude and peace. There is also a swimming pool – although this had just been covered up when we arrived (mid-October), but would imagine this is a welcome relief from the Italian sun in the height of summer…

 

 

 

 

Vatican Museums : Rome : Italy

Vatican Museums : Rome : Italy

The Vatican Museums are the public museums of the Vatican City, displaying works of art amassed by the Catholic Church and papacy throughout the centuries, including several of the most renowned Roman sculptures and some of the most important Renaissance artwork in the world. There are 24 galleries in total, with the Sistine Chapel, being the last room visited within the Museum. We booked our tickets online, having read about the queues which can develop, and this proved to be a very good thing to do. Although you do still need to queue to collect the actual tickets – and don’t forget ID to prove who you are – it’s a whole lot quicker than joining the snaking queue around the building. It’s important to know that the following items of clothing are NOT allowed – shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts. And even more important if you visit in the hotter months as you’ll need to be prepared clothing wise. All visitors must pass through airport-style security, and during high season, the wait at security may be up to 30 minutes – and this was guidance when we visited a few years ago, so it may be even longer now. I guess, the rule of thumb is, if you want to visit the Vatican Museums is be organised and get online to make a booking.

So, is it worth it?

Yes, yes, yes, absolutely, yes. It’s a long day – because to even touch the sides, you need to set aside a day. You definitely won’t see everything, although you will probably go through all of the galleries, to get to the end goal. The Sistine Chapel. More of which later.

If you specifically want to visit the Gardens, then make sure you buy a ticket which includes this, as not all do. Ours didn’t, but I don’t think we missed out, as doing the gardens as well, would probably have been totally overwhelming. We started in the Cortile della Pigna (Pine Cone Courtyard), where the bronze Sphere within a Sphere – Sfera con Sfera – sits. Created by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, its meaning isn’t clear, but consensus seems to be that it can be read as a symbol of the emergence of a new world from the old. I don’t think you are supposed to touch it, let alone spin it, but we did see a number of tourists giving it a whirl. And very impressive it was, too…

From the Cortile della Pigna, you begin the tour of the galleries. Be prepared – selfie sticks seem to still be a big thing, so watch where you’re going! The galleries are a bit of an onslaught, visually, so you will definitely miss a lot. Depending on your interests, some will be much more interesting than others, but even the ones that you take a quicker pace through, are dazzling and exhausting in equal measure. I have no idea of the names of the vast majority of the galleries, but I do know that I definitely wanted to see the only painting by Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums – The Deposition of Christ – in the Vatican Pinacoteca, and the Gallery of Maps. Two things ticked off my bucket list. So, what did we see?

Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova

Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova

The boxer Damosseno, by Antonio Canova

The marble sculpture of the boxer Damosseno, by Antonio Canova

Statue of a Roman holding a scroll.

Statue of a Roman holding a scroll.

Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Ceiling frescoes : Vatican Museum

Ceiling frescoes : Vatican Museum

Sala della Rotondo & its Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Sala della Rotondo & its Roman mosaic floor : Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum Ceiling : Virgin Mary, Angels and the Holy Spirit

Vatican Museum Ceiling : Virgin Mary, Angels and the Holy Spirit

Child strangling a goose sculpture : Vatican Museum

Child (apparently) strangling a goose sculpture : Vatican Museum

The Resurrection of Christ by Raphael Sanzio, in the Gallery of the Tapestries

The Resurrection of Christ by Raphael Sanzio, in the Gallery of the Tapestries

Italy : Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museum

Italy : Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museum

The Martyrs of Gorkum by Cesare Fracassini

The Martyrs of Gorkum by Cesare Fracassini

Too much to take in, in one room...

Too much to take in, in one room…

The Room of the Popes : Vatican Museum

The Room of the Popes : Vatican Museum

Out of everything we saw in the museum, the ceiling above is one of the things I remember most. If you are fascinated by the history of The Borgias, then this part of the museums might interest you, as its only the Borgias’ Apartments! Imagine that! The ceiling above is in The Room of the Popes and owes its name to the scrolls with the names of popes on them in the room. It is the largest of all the rooms and the pope used it to host official ceremonies, audiences, and solemn banquets.

Image : https://www.museivaticani.va

Image : https://www.museivaticani.va

So, above, the one I wanted to see – and I was so taken by it, that I completely forgot to take any photographs so this is one is credited, in the caption. The Deposition of Christ, painted in 1603, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have no background in art and am not an artist, in any way. But I have always been intrigued by historical figures who led lives that were full of danger and intrigue – and immense talent. So, although I couldn’t appreciate Caravaggio’s work as an art historian might, his life is more than enough to intrigue me and make me interested in his art…

…with his unruly black curls and unkempt black beard, the artist was known to wander the streets of Rome dressed in black, accompanied by his black dog, Crow (the bird-harbinger of death), and brandishing swords and daggers at the slightest provocation.

He and his motley group of friends took as their motto – “without hope, without fear,” – and these were the words they lived by. Caravaggio had a police record many pages long filled with stories of assault, illegal weapons, harassing the police and complex affairs with prostitutes and courtesans. Caravaggio’s numerous legal problems often meant that the artist would suddenly have to flee Rome or be otherwise unable to complete a commission. Caravaggio’s brawling, trouble-making tendencies reached a whole new level on the 28th of May, 1606. On this date, following a disputed tennis match, Caravaggio and his friends were involved in a street brawl with Caravaggio’s young foe Ranuccio Tomassoni and his gang.

Caravaggio ended up dealing the young Tomassoni a fatal stab wound in the groin. With a price on his head, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome for the last time. The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another, all the while trying to get a papal pardon to be able to return to Rome. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta to try to gain the influence of the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, Alof de Wignacourt. The Knights were so pleased with the works the artist executed while on the island that he was accepted into the Order, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”

The artist escaped once again and was back on the run. During this period, an unknown assailant attempted to murder Caravaggio during his sleep, only succeeding in disfiguring his face. Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior such as sleeping fully clothed and armed and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation. The artist desperately continued working, sending paintings to influential figures like Cardinal Borghese and Alof de Wignacourt in order to secure their influence to procure his pardon. Finally, in 1610, Pope Paul V began the process of granting Caravaggio’s pardon and the artist boarded a boat to return home to Rome. He was never to return, however: Caravaggio died under unknown circumstances around the 18th of July, 1610, after only a decade-long career. His body was never recovered….

Last stop on our whistle-stop tour of the Vatican Museums, was obviously The Sistine Chapel. Having heard all of the myths and stories about visiting here, I was prepared to be blown away. And, prepared to not take any photographs, of course. But, all I was left with was a feeling of total disappointment and being underwhelmed.

The Sistine Chapel. Image credit : www.theromanguy.com

The Sistine Chapel. Image credit : www.theromanguy.com

Perhaps I should have read this brilliant article first, but I didn’t, and so my experience was one of being rushed through a massive crowds, with security guards barking instructions from raised platforms. It was horrible. There was no sense of awe or serenity. It was like a cattle market – and if prods had been available, those guards would definitely have used them. It was so crowded that there was literally no point in looking up, to see the ceiling, as you’d have been knocked off your feet if you stopped. Other visitors were really, really frustrated and there was a general sense that we just had to get through as quickly as possible, to allow the next crowd in. I’m going to have to do it again, but I honestly think that next time, I’d opt for one of the small guided tours, as explained here. Well worth the extra expense, I’d say, to get up close to the art. And, not be shouted at by security.

If there’s one way to exit the museums, it’s via the famous Bramante Stairs. These really are a spectacle and rather than leaving on a disappointed downer after the Sistine Chapel, this staircase was a bit of treat.

Image credit : www.romeprivateguides.com

Image credit : www.romeprivateguides.com

Top Tips

So, our top tips for visiting the Vatican Museums :

  • Book online
  • Don’t forget your passport or ID
  • Wear trainers
  • Have a phone charging pack so you can recharge for all of those photos you’ll want to take
  • Be prepared to be pushed through the Sistine Chapel – OR, book a guided tour
  • Don’t expect to take it all in – there’ll be so much you’ll see online afterwards that you weren’t even aware of as you walked around
  • It’s a good few hours to do all of the museums, so set aside a day
  • Have a glass (or two) of refreshing Italian wine after it all…

Puglia : Italy

Puglia : Italy

Living now in Istria, the tiny heart shaped peninsula, right up in the north of Croatia – bordering Slovenia, close to Trieste and across the Adriatic from Venice – we are very lucky that we can now travel to Italy very easily. Muggia is our closest Italian town, and we can be there in about half an hour, taking the coastal route along what’s called the Slovenian Riviera. Previously, when we lived back in Manchester, Italy was a flight away, and certainly not somewhere we’d have considered driving to. But, we did drive around Italy, on a road trip in 2013 and this cemented our love of this country. And, nowhere more so than in the south, an area undiscovered by us previously. The furthest south we had been before had been Naples and Pompeii and we’d not ventured over to the other side of the heel of Italy. But, in late summer/early autumn of 2013, our adventure took us over to the Apulia region and we found our love of this amazing country, strengthened even further.

From the beautiful coastline of the Adriatic and the bustling cities of Bari and Brindisi, to the iconic whitewashed hill towns, to the incredible architectural spectacle of Alberobello, we loved everywhere we visited. And, nearly ten years later, we’re planning a return. But for a very different reason, this time…

A tiny bay, just outside the beautiful town of Monopoli

A tiny bay, just outside the beautiful town of Monopoli

Morning stroll, the Monopoli way...

Morning stroll, the Monopoli way…

The photo, above, is a real stand out memory from our time spent in Monopoli. We were there mid-October, but it was still warm enough for people to be on the beach over the weekend, and like these two women, taking their morning stroll in the shallow waters of this Adriatic bay. It’s something we still talk about and this obviously made a real impression on us, as our thoughts do keep returning to this area.

Fishing boats : Monopoli

Fishing boats : Monopoli

Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia, Monopoli

Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia, Monopoli

Airing the bedding...

Airing the bedding…

The trulli of Alberobello

The trulli of Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello houses about 1500 trulli in its historic centre. With their circular shape, the trulli had to be built dry, without mortar, in order to allow them to be easily dismantled and reassembled and therefore avoid paying the ‘building tax‘ imposed by the Kingdom of Naples. It also is the only town whose historical centre is made up of trulli. It’s as magical as I always imagined it would be. Conical roofs – pinnacoli – are often adorned with a painted symbol. Their origin is unknown but they usually have a religious or astrological meaning, and may include planetary signs, the malocchi (evil eye), crosses, hearts and stars.

Trulli symbols...

Trulli symbols…

Many of the trulli have now been renovated and provide tourist accommodation. Some are now shops, selling traditional wares from the area, including the most gorgeous hazelnut liquer, which will definitely be on our shopping list when we return. We did stay in a trullo, but ours was about ten minutes from Alberobello, in the countryside, with amazing views down to the Adriatic. With hindsight, we’d probably not stay in a location quite as quiet, and would probably opt for somewhere like Locorotondo, Ostuni or Martina Franca. But, it was a real experience. We had a self-contained trullo, with a large living room and kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom – and those all important pinnacoli. As well as a large terrace, there was also a swimming pool – a real bonus as I’m guessing pools are at a premium in the towns.

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Trulli Pietra Preziosa

Traditional repair of a conical roof

Traditional repair of a conical roof

So, plans are afoot to do another road trip down to this region of Italy, but this time, with a very different purpose. Not just a nice holiday jaunt – although we’ll make sure that we do enjoy ourselves – but with a view to looking at properties. We are spending the winter focusing on the renovation of our home in Istria, and when we are happy that we have done everything that we need to do it, we will start to market it again. And, by that time, we feel that we will have done our time in beautiful Istria, and be ready – and very prepared – for our next European adventure…

sperlonga : latina : italy

sperlonga : latina : italy

We’d not previously heard of this place, but now we know about it, it’s very definitely somewhere we’d revisit next time we’re in the province of Latina. Halfway between Rome and Naples, the very pretty village, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the sea, is a welcome break from the monotonous road south from Rome. Apart from gems like Sperlonga, this coastal stretch, down the west coast towards Naples is not particularly one for sight-seeing, so finding this village was a real treat. Like a lot of Italian towns, the newer part sprawls out below, with the historical centre much higher up.

Sperlonga is a warren of narrow alleyways and steep steps that often open out onto small piazzas. If you’re a bit unsteady on your feet, or with small children, you need to be prepared for a bit of an uphill climb, but it’s worth it. It’s more of a very large village, than a town, but has all of the essential ingredients of an archetypal Italian town – churches, pealing bells, small but upmarket boutiques (Sperlonga is a getaway for Romans…), very chic restaurants & bars, and stunning cliff top views of the (very well regimented) beach & sea, far below. There’s a small port which we took a stroll down to – think Monaco in miniature! There were serious boats moored up, as well as the odd speedboat zipping around the coast. All very nice!

We visited in late September – it was still very warm (air con was needed), but not stifling. The beach was beautiful – long, expansive and like I said before, very well regimented. But that’s generally Italian beaches for you. I’m not sure how I’d like Sperlonga in the height of summer and I imagine it would be very hot and very packed, but it’s a definitely a place to visit if you like history, beauty & out-of-season visits.

A friend recommended a hotel – Hotel Corallo – and we were so impressed by it, that we’d definitely recommend it ourselves. For just over 80 euros, we had a very large double room, with a large en-suite bathroom and a small balcony. Our lack of sea view (obscured by beautiful medieval buildings), was made up for by a stunning view of the sunset. Breakfast was included – if you’re not a sweet-tooth you may struggle with breakfast here, as it was a bit of a saccharine overload, but the coffee was very, very good.

Cake, cake and more cake, for breakfast...

Cake, cake and more cake, for breakfast…

Our stay in Sperlonga was short – an afternoon and an overnight stay, but because we were based in the old town, it was sufficient time to get ourselves familiar with it. It really is a beautiful hilltop town, close to Rome and it definitely does break up that very monotonous SS7 road down the west coast. And, soon, we were back in the car, leaving Sperlonga and back on that road, heading south, on the next part of our Italian road trip.

cagliari : sardinia : italy

cagliari : sardinia : italy

Cagliari is a city like no other Italian city we have visited. It’s a port city, and it wears its history on its sleeve. Everywhere you go you come across traces of its rich past, from ancient Roman ruins, to museums filled with prehistoric artefacts, to centuries-old churches and and elegant palazzi. It is located on the Bay of the Angels (Golfo degli Angeli) and, like Rome, it was built on seven hills, which identify the historic neighbourhoods of the city. The port area is busy, busy, busy – the main road runs along the sea front and cars and buses and vespas and motorbikes whizz past, so you need to be on your toes. Once on the city side though, it reveals itself as a beautifully elegant place, with imposing, honey coloured buildings, with elaborate balconies and shuttered windows, facing the sea. Wide tree-lined boulevards are packed with cafes and bars, and people catching up, eating, drinking and generally making life look pretty wonderful!

We stayed in an apartment, up the hill from the sea, but still “downtown”, on the beautiful Piazza Yenne. The piazza is bordered by bars and restaurants at ground level, and is lively. But, look up, and you see those beautiful buildings with balconies and railings and shutters. Our apartment was on the top floor of one of these buildings and have been exquisitely renovated – with sound-proofing, too, so we could shut out the noise when we wanted to. Piazza Yenne is the main meeting point for locals, especially during the hot summer nights. People gather here to have a chat before moving on; to sit in the terraces of the many cafes and bars, or simply, to passeggiata. Over the course of two visits to Cagliari we were there for four days in total, and so managed to get out and about and explore quite a lot of the whole city. It’s magical. It’s beautiful. It’s raw and feels real, the kind of city you could actually imagine living in.

You can either climb up to the upper town, or take a glass street elevator (at the top of Piazza Yenne) – whichever you prefer, just do it, because the upper part of town is even more beautiful and the views even more spectacular. It’s also not quite a crowded and busy, so you can feel a little more as if you have bits of the city to yourself, even in the height of summer.